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
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
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
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.
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
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
The gap was even more apparent when you compared the percentages of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.