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The Passions of Men: Work and Love in the Age of Stress 


In 1986 an editor asked me for a how-to book on dealing with stress. Instead, I wrote a book showing how men's desires -- especially for a life richer in relationships -- had changed, but their economic lives had not.  Such is the meaning of "stress" in our time.

Thus began an ongoing exploration of work-life issues, strongly influenced by a decade I spent in and around the U.S. feminist movement.  In this section you'll find a specially re-edited  extract from the book.  

Chapter One: Maynard G. Krebs, Where Are You? 

The life of every citizen is becoming a business. This, it seems to me, is one of the worst interpretations of the meaning of human life history has ever seen. Man's life is not a business.
-- Saul Bellow, Herzog

Sitting in the brilliant sunlight hammering down on a pool at Ft. Lauderdale one day in the 1970s, it struck me (and I mean struck, like a physical blow) that the music coming over the poolside loudspeakers consisted of current hits, none of which bore the slightest resemblance to the songs the retired folks around me had heard in their childhood and youth. One day the records I loved would likewise disappear, buried in attics and closets. 

And that is what happened to Maynard G. Krebs. 

Maynard was one of the principal characters on a TV show called "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis," which was mandatory watching for kids in the late Fifties and early Sixties. He was a skinny, scraggly, dark-haired guy with a little goatee beard, the last of the Beatniks. Actually, he wasn't a Beat at all--not like Jack Kerouac, Neal Casady, Allen Ginsberg, and those other American wanderers of the Fifties, who lived on the edge of the working class, doing the oddest and dirtiest of jobs to earn the money that enabled them to write their books. Maynard was in a class of his own, a kind of suburban bad boy who couldn't be bothered to lift a finger in any cause, including his own. Even that level of physical effort smacked of work--and nothing could ever match the horror with which Maynard pronounced, in a voice rising to a scream, the hated term Work! 

It was strange that Maynard should be the best friend of Dobie Gillis, a clean-cut, blond young man, not too good-looking or bad-looking, not too dumb or too smart, who told you flat out that "all I ever wanted in life was one lousy girl." Having even one lousy girl, of course, meant that Dobie had to work--either that, or he'd have to beg for money along with the family car keys, an experience whose humiliations were well known to the boys I grew up with. (We were in an era when girls did not pay for their own movie tickets or hamburgers, let alone the gas and oil changes that made the wheels of love turn smoothly.) 

Later I realized that the reason Dobie and Maynard got along was that each represented to the other a path not taken. Refusing to work meant that Maynard was free in a way Dobie could never be; but working meant that Dobie could taste pleasures that Maynard had no self-respecting choice, given his aversion to labor, but to disdain. 

Now this was a Manichean duality even a confused kid could appreciate. It confirmed what I saw in the grown-up world, and the world of teenagers ahead of me: males traded time for money, and money for the company of women. Women worked, of course--some of them, anyway--but unless they were poor, they worked for their own satisfaction. Men worked for women, and for their families, which women managed for them, as much as they worked because they liked to. 

Other factors entered into this equation, certainly. No self-respecting woman would let herself be bought and sold, just like that; and boys talked with disgust about girls who cared for nothing except the newness and glamour of their dates' automobiles. But even nice girls, like the cheerleader who lived next door to me, who dated the student council vice-president and captain of the football team, would admit that "having a nice car counts, it does." When you got right down to it, a boy had a choice in life: he could be Maynard, or Dobie. He could have a nice car, a nice job, and a nice girl, or he could grow his goatee and walk alone. 

At the time I was ill-equipped to understand just how weighty the choice could be. An American teenaged boy, which could be defined as a beast that never grows tired, doesn't think much about the energy wrapped up in the hours he sells. I never did, through the first two and a half decades of my life, when physical exhaustion was nothing that a short night's sleep couldn't cure. 

I still remember a shock that occurred in my twenty-sixth year, when I was working from nine in the morning until midnight six days a week, writing and editing a weekly newspaper. One morning I woke up more tired than I had ever been in my life, with another day's work ahead of me. I will tell you, dear reader, the taste in my mouth was fear. It occurred to me right then that I could work myself to death, that I could become so tired that I would never be fresh again. And only then did I begin to reflect on the relation between my career and my love life. 

If Dobie could get along with Maynard, it was partly because he felt superior to his Beatnik buddy. Maynard, after all, was even more a prisoner of circumstance than Dobie, though the circumstances were of his own choosing; his freedom depended on never wanting anything that money could buy, which is very little freedom in a money economy like ours.
I have felt a similar superiority at different times, with men who earned less than me, and I admit to being ashamed of it; I have seen a similar shame, directed toward me this time, in my richer friends. It is a complex emotion, this shame, compounded of envy toward those who have made choices in life that do not fatten the wallet, and of the childish need to be convinced that one has been a good, hard-working boy, after all, with a paycheck to prove it. There is a double comfort in having that proof in hand: not only a certain security from financial need, but a kind of self-respect that one cannot obtain only from a woman. 

In the 1980s, when the female-sensitive "New Man" came into fashion, a number of men tried to break that habit (as in "heroin habit"). One of them was Mike Clary, a reporter for the Miami Herald and author of Daddy's Home, in which he recounted what hapened when he took two years out of his career to care for his infant daughter while his wife brought home the bread. The role reversal began early in their relationship: 

In the five years since Lillian and I had met in San Francisco up to the birth of their daughter)... we had alternated the task of making our living. When she worked at counseling, I could write about the family of gorillas at the zoo, or spend the day in a darkroom developing pictures. When I worked for a newspaper, she could be a full-time student. 

It was Lillian whose turn to work came first, and that bothered Clary: "Although money had not caused any serious dissension between us," he writes, "neither Lillian nor I ever forgot that it was she who paid the bills." No wonder that when she wanted to go back to school, meaning that he would need to earn a salary for both of them, Clary found that "the image of me with a steady job, and a weekly paycheck in my name, rapidly grew in appeal." He wanted to pull his weight, to prove to her and to himself that he was capable and competent to earn a living--that he was a man, not a Maynard. 

Most men, I think, resemble Clary; we like the sense of being self-sustaining, and of having the strength to sustain others, that work affords us. And if we do not share the dumb notion that "a woman only cares how much money a guy has" (some do, sure, but not most of the women I've met, thank God), we take it as given that very few women indeed will not care if a man has no money at all. That is certainly a main reason that over 85 percent of single men between the ages of 25 and 44--a figure that has not changed much since the days when Maynard and Dobie were roaming the airwaves, and which has remained about five points over the percentage of working single women at the same age--have a paying job. The rest, aside from the dwindling idle rich, are rarely prime targets of feminine interest. In a conversation noted in my journal from 1985, a close friend put it plainly: "If you don't have the career, you don't have the girl." You don't, that is, have a girl worth having, as we define such girls these days: attractive, independant, intelligent, with a worthwhile career of her own. And if the girl leaves, you have nothing at all.

Clary noticed that, too.  One of the few pleasures he  reserved for himself after his daughter was born was participation in a weekly basketball league. Among  the players was a man who had raised his first baby for nine months, but went back to work because his wife "was really into the kids." He kept his job when they divorced, and she kept the kids.  As guys do, he asked Clary what he was working on. The answer, of course, was that Clary was working on his daughter.  

When the other guy heard that, "he looked surprised," recounts Clary. The man said, "I thought you were staying home to write a novel or something." No, said Clary, just bringing up baby. "He looked away," notes Clary. There was nothing more to talk about, it seemed--at least to Clary, who comments, "Without committing themselves to a term as househusband, perhaps no man could understand." 

Or perhaps the guy understood it only too well. Clary's friend had experienced child care, but for him it was associated with failure--with dependance, and loss. He had given up his place in the world of work, and he had ended up losing his family and his lover. When the dust settled, he was back where he started, alone, working for a living. Between a job and a woman, he knew which would always be there. 

Clary and others like him -- not only men who stayed home with their kids, but women who chose careers over jobs -- had succeeded by the mid-1980s in creating a widely-accepted myth.  It can be simply stated: Men and women had a full and equal right to take each other's places in the family and the workforce. The reality was rather different.  

It was a fact that the thirty years beginning in the 1950s had seen an epochal movement of women into the workforce. Much of the change was due to a doubling of the percentage of married women who held jobs between 1960 and 1985. But among these women, the highest percentage of those who worked was always found in age groups whose children had grown enough to be able to take care of themselves (at least until dinnertime); 36 percent of married women between the ages of 35-44 had a job in 1960, more than for any other age group, and they still led the pack in 1985, with an 80 percent labor force participation rate. Close behind were married women between aged 45-65. In 1985, almost three out of four of them worked for money.  That was  about double the rate of 1960. (By comparison, being a housewife -- as about one-third of American women still were -- was a part-time job. Various studies showed that housewives had more time to sleep and relax.  They also performed about two hours per day less of total work, including unpaid tasks, than employed husbands, and four hours less than working wives.) 

But even in married couples, men were going to work in greater proportions. While half of married women under 20 had jobs in 1985, the figure for their men was 91 percent. In the 25-34 age group -- which had become the prime child-bearing years for American women -- three married men had jobs for every two married women. Even between the ages of 35 and 44, the peak career years for working married women, married men hold a four-to-three lead in labor force participation rates, and their lead grew with age. Single men were also more likely to hold jobs than single women -- twice as likely, past the age of 65. In absolute terms, just under fourteen million more men than women were paid to work in our society; this in spite of the fact that there are more women than men among us, once you get past the age of 25 into career days. 

The gap was even more apparent when you compared the percentages of men 
and women who worked full-time. In the 16-24 age group, 37 percent of men with jobs work full-time, and 28 percent of women. But in the next decade of life, men's lead exploded: 80 percent of working men had full-time paid jobs, compared to 48 percent of women. By the age of 35, men had widened their lead by eight points. From the ages of 35 to 65, men's full-time workforce participation rates were twice that of women's. An employed man's chances of holding a full-time job, instead of working part-time, were better than four to one during his prime working years; for a woman, those odds dropped to even. 

Whether or not he had a woman, a man must work. That was  just another fact of life. By the 1980s it was also evident that just as men accepted the necessity, not only for reasons of financial need, but for self-respect, of working, most had come to accept, if not expect that their partners too would  work. 

But the reasons for this expectation went far beyond the simple fact that a growing number of families needed the money a wife brought home. In a  study of 1225 Midwestern married couples conducted in 1974-75, At Home and at Work, Michael Geerken and Walter R. Cove found that contrary to their own expectations, "the higher the husband's occupational status" -- the more bacon he brought home -- "the more likely the wife is to work." 

In other words, the families that needed the money least were initially those in which the highest percentage of wives were taking jobs. Geerken and Cove suggested that this was due, first, to the fact that a highly-paid man would feel less threatened by a working wife than a man whose paycheck didn't top his partner's by a large margin, if at all. Moreover, since highly-paid men tend to be college graduates, their attitudes might also have been more liberal than the average man's, who would presumably prefer a woman who knew her place. Likewise, the more education women had, and the greater their husbands' support for their ambitions, the more likely they were to work, and the more money they earned by working. 

If need didn't explain why these women went to work and their men wanted them to, what did?  My interview subjects gave me one reason: A woman with a career of her own made a more interesting partner.  "I can't imagine living with someone who didn't have anything going on in her life," said one, aged 30, and expecting his first child with his wife and partner in his business. "What would you talk about?" 

Less often, they noticed a connection between the fact that most of their parents were divorced, and their desires for a working wife.  They had been young and to a large extent helpless witnesses to the breakup of their families. They -- and me too, now that I think of it -- came to regard divorce as a possible, if not probable, consequence of the kind of relationships our parents had.  In most cases, that meant a couple consisting of a working man and a housewife. One young man I interviewed, who disdained the possibility of marrying a woman who didn't work, was typical. His parents had divorced early in his adolesence, and both of them had suffered greatly. He had drawn the lesson that "when two people are dependant on each other, it's death." 

Part of what he was rejecting in his parents' example, I believe, was a certain possibility for shame in the failure of a marriage. I know that I was terribly aware of that shame in my twenties, as I dealt with the implications of my parents' divorce, and the divorces of so many of my friends' parents, most of whom fit the man-at-work, woman-at-home pattern this young man had grown to loathe. Anyone who has lived through this event can tell you that the hatred, fear and guilt expressed by the separating partners is directly proportional to the financial dependance of one--as my generation experienced it, usually the woman, the mother--on the other. If young men now valued independant, self-supporting women so highly, I am certain that it was  partly because we did  not want to feel the guilt that we saw in our fathers when they cut their women loose from their joint accounts. 

For example, when I separated from a lover of six years, it was a point of honor for me to wait until she had a job, an apartment she could afford, and a network of social and professional contacts in the city to which we had moved in the last desperate year of our relationship. I did not want the panic I had seen in my mother, when my father moved out, to be on my conscience. It would have been a failure I could neither gladly learn from, nor repair. 

I am well aware that the high number of men who refused to honor child support and alimony awards in the United States was and remains a national disgrace (or as a small minority of vocal men would have it, a justifiable revolt in an age when women can take care of themselves). But that does not disprove my point, which is that men were  well aware that divorce exists, and had  learned to value female independance precisely because it promised them freedom from some of the more humiliating aspects of marital failure. 

All the same, in order to claim that freedom, men had to guard their own independance -- a job, and a living. Which brings us back to the larger point: Even at a time when half of American women worked for money, the man who did not was still a rarity. The bottom line of our intimate relationships (including stable but unmarried couples) had not changed here. Whatever their partners' preferences, men would work for a living. And because they could not be in two places at once, men would not be with their families -- not, at any rate, as much as the men who listened to the promises and demands of feminists were beginning to dream.  As Clary figured, if a woman can go to work, why can't a man stay home?  Answer: Because a man's got to go to work.

Let me tell you about a waking nightmare I have had: I imagined that while I was pushing my career forward, out in the world on the job, another man came in through my back door and made love to my woman. There I am, killing myself -- for a woman, of course -- and this lazy, good-for-nothing-but-bed gets into mine. 

I was hardly the first to have that idea. When Homer's Odysseus was struggling home from the Trojan War, a pack of hangers-on was clustered around his wife Penelope's loom, letting her know that her bed need not stay cold. The first thing Odysseus did when he got back was slaughter the bunch of them; a few died like cowards, but most fought to the end, which is Homer's way of letting us know that they were man enough to take his hero's place. And that, besides vengeance, was why Odysseus had to kill them; even a hero knows better than to leave a potent rival behind his back, to stab him and carry off the wife and the weaving. 

Having remained single past the age when most of my friends finally married, and being in a career that most Americans consider a little, hmmm, exotic, I learned that a single man who appears to have time on his hands carries an aura of menace into polite society. He could come for dinner one night, and through the back door to seduce his hostess the next. He is Maynard with a knife, aimed at your back. His advantage, of course, is that you are on the job, and he is not. What makes him even scarier, I think, is the suspicion that, just as "no one is irreplaceable" in a job, as we are all so fond of telling each other lately, no one is irreplaceable in our beds--especially if we suspect, deep down, that we are not giving our women enough of what they want. 

Now, it is true, at least in my observation, that even if women like an occasional fling with Maynard, they are more likely to marry Dobie, and to stay with him long after they have forgotten his buddy's bearded, lazy charms. But it is also true that in some relationships, men have Maynard's cake, and eat it too: they live off their partners. Some of these men are like Clary; they pull their weight, even if it isn't a sack of gold. Others, I discovered when I researched an article about exploitive relationships for Cosmopolitan in 1985, do not: they simply take, and all they can get. 

The magazine wanted to know about the worst of the worst, and that is what I wrote about for them. I talked about Linda Lovelace, who was battered into making "Deep Throat," about a woman who recounted to me the way in which her husband had drained the business they began together, beaten her, and stolen her children. The striking thing in these and similar cases was that the women were not masochists, as conventional wisdom would have it: they were brave (they kept trying to break out), strong (they had to be, to survive) and above all, traditional. They thought that if only they kept working on their relationships, proving their love, someday their exploiter would become a prince. It was the biggest thing the men had going for them--that, and their willingness to use physical brutality to retain control. We called these men "another kind of pimp," and that is what they were. 

What was left out of the story was something far more subtle, of which I found numerous examples: a young woman with career ambitions meets a man who is likewise in a career or preparing one, and falls in love with him. Temporarily, she takes on support of the couple, so that he can change careers, or get the one he has off the ground. And then the arrangement becomes permanent. She is paying the bills, going off to work, and he is making excuses. Often enough, the excuses become denial: "I'm doing the best I can." Then he becomes righteous; she's pushing him, and it's not fair. And one day he pushes back: he hits her, or he hits her below the belt, by finding another woman.

The women who put up with this situation weren't masochists, either; they were catches, by any reasonable standards of beauty, intelligence, and self-awareness. They were investing themselves in a man, and they had a lot to invest. And they were getting something back, at least at the start. They felt loved, in and out of bed. When it came to sex, they were having it as often as they made themselves available--after all, the man was there, with nothing to do but think about making love. More importantly, the man had the time to listen to their concerns and problems, especially about work.  He knew how tough it could be on the job -- he needed to know, or his own excuses would be worthless--and to offer the comfort that a working person needs. 

"You know, for a while it was great," said one woman, who had not only supported a starving composer, but paid for the cocaine they took together, and the recording session that was supposed to revive his career, and might have done so if he hadn't puttered away the $120 an hour she spent by the day for the sake of the record, money she had earned. The main thing she found great was that "we had a lot of time for each other." Until, that is--after two years--she began insisting that he do more with his time than make love; then he withdrew his love from her. And that was more or less what happened in all of these relationships. 

This is a minority case among us, and a far smaller minority of such cases last longer than a few years, so far as I could tell.  Yet there is some deep rule at work here, one that 
American men apparently find it terribly hard to transgress: we cannot love unless we also work. We must have both; if we do not, we will not succeed at loving alone. 

But that does not mean that we have balanced work and love. On the contrary, as our working lives are constructed now, we cannot love as much as we wish. We know it, and women know it. And we both know why: we have a terrible sense of what specialists in stress called "time urgency." We can be late to work, or late to love; but we cannot be late for both. 

Time. It is what Dobie sold, in order to get a girl, and what Maynard held too precious to sell. Put them together, and they make one man, split down the middle.
As are we all. 

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