My Friend with the Midlife Crisis

Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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68 Responses

  1. Tod Kelly says:

    This is most excellent. Many, many kudos.Report

  2. Glyph says:

    Great piece.

    He could have stayed until retirement at his steady, reliable job, friends said. He’d been there for twenty-two years. That would have made more sense. After a certain age, though, you become deaf to those who try to reason with you.

    I was just telling my wife the other day that if I were to be laid off or fired, I don’t know if I would seek similar work in my industry or field; I’d want to just buy a pub, and run that. I just hit twenty years with my company – they are old-fashioned, and got me an expensive engraved watch (I would have preferred cash or equivalent instruments) – by any metric, I have gotten myself to a sweet setup. Work from home, talk to my boss every week or two and see him once or twice a year, benefits, the whole deal. But the thought of having to do it all over again – or indeed, for a whole lot longer – fills me with incredible dread and loathing.

    It’s amazing how much of our thinking about men revolves around how they fulfill their duties to others and whether or not those duties are just. Whether, that is, men can be dependable and reliable, and not the question of who they are in the first place.

    This is an astute observation, coupled with the compare/contrast to feminism. We now hold that thinking of women simply as their patriarchal “function” – the ‘duty’ to have babies, and keep a household, etc. was wrong and stifling for them. So far, so good.

    But of course men’s ‘duty’, to reliably provide for that household, perhaps by working steadily at a job he despises (but that has benefits!) until such time as he drops dead of it (and maybe, to go die for King and country if need be), remains largely the expectation.

    At least you don’t have kids. Despite my seemingly-cavalier attitude above about the possibility of being laid off and having to switch life gears, I have three small humans depending on me; and the thought of somehow not being able to provide for them, ALSO fills me with inexpressible dread and loathing. There’s something to be said for having kids younger – so that if you DO somehow ‘crack’, they are mostly able to fly from the nest for themselves.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Glyph says:

      Right. I think feminism opened up the discussion of what men’s lives might look like outside of the impositions placed on them by social norms, which is all for the good, but now it’s up to men to figure that out for themselves because it’s outside the purview of feminism. For some reason, it still seems selfish when they try to do so.

      I think children are a major consideration for many people. I didn’t mention that my friend’s two daughters from a previous marriage are reaching legal age, but I know it was on his mind.

      It’s interesting too how much of this ties into the book I’m writing about my great-grandfather because I always wonder why he never wrote the novel he intended, given that he was hanging around with Hemingway and Henry Miller and the rest! But the truth is he kept filing reports and slogging away at his jobs and refusing to fail his family the way his father had. When he finally moved into the summer home by himself to start writing it, he died soon after. So, it was sad in a lot of ways, but also sort of noble.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Rufus F. says:

        I think that there are a lot of barriers to discussing what men’s lives would look like without the imposition of social norms remaining though. Even in feminist circles, there still seems to be a lot of expectations about what a real man should do and that involves meeting a lot of the traditional social expectations and a lot of the new ones. Many people place great importance in the traditional social expectations. Many men still define themselves by them and many women want these expectations even if it contradicts some of their other principles.Report

        • Kazzy in reply to LeeEsq says:

          I think language can trip us up here.

          For instance, I would argue that a “real man” would provide for his family. But I’m using the word “provide” much more broadly than we traditionally think of when we talk about “real men” “providing” for their families. I don’t think the only way a man can or should provide for his family is financially. When I talk about “providing”, I think of a man working with his partner to ensure that the various members’ needs are met. And I would have the same expectation of the woman. How they divide up the various roles and responsibilities would be up to the couple. But I would hold them each responsible for ensuring that “provisions” are met.

          So, really, when I talk about this, I’m talking much more about maturity and adulthood and the like, really independent of gender. But I am somewhat hamstrung by language because if I just talk about men providing for their families, it is easy to imagine me advocating for men bringing home the bacon while the women stay barefoot in the contention.

          And, of course, all of this assumes the man has a family and a female partner… which itself is chock full of, well, assumptions.Report

          • LeeEsq in reply to Kazzy says:

            The problem is the entire concept of there being such a thing as a “real man.” Most of us could recognize the problem about talking about what a “real woman” would do. There is a growing recognition that gender identity is at least kind of to very fluid in people. However, when it comes to heterosexual cis-gender men people still cling to the idea that there is such a thing as a “real man.”

            This problem exists across the political spectrum on gender. I’ve heard the real man spiel from ostensibly liberal sex-positive people as well as conservatives. The details are different but the basic idea seems to be that “real men” should put up with a lot of sh*t in the service of the others rather than have any concerns or desires of his own. Conservatives might define this in terms of providing financially for your family or dying for your country and liberals might see this as you shouldn’t be concerned about your current partner’s romantic/sexual past but the definition always revolves around some form of sacrificing your desires, emotions, and wants for others without complaint.Report

            • Glyph in reply to LeeEsq says:

              the definition always revolves around some form of sacrificing your desires, emotions, and wants for others without complaint.

              More than simply a social gender expectation, this sentence can also be used to describe several major religions, as well as more than one political philosophy or persuasion.Report

              • Chris in reply to Glyph says:

                One might even say that it describes what civilization is.

                Since we’re talking Freud and all.Report

              • Doctor Jay in reply to Chris says:

                @chris You appear to be framing a dichotomy: Men can either have what they want, or be civilized.

                There’s conflict there, but is there contradiction? Is it really so black and white? Isn’t that the very issue?

                I spent decades enacting The Man With No Needs. It wasn’t good for anybody.Report

              • Chris in reply to Doctor Jay says:

                Well, “no needs” is obviously extreme, but I am certainly not the first person to suggest that society is a big ol’ system of desire repression. I may have even named someone who said that.Report

            • Stillwater in reply to LeeEsq says:

              That’s interesting. I view it as being defined sorta exactly the other way along that same axis. That is, a real man is someone who is not motivated by nor particularly interested in mambypamby things like “feelings”, either his or others, and is more concerned with imposing his desires – the good kind, of course!, as traditionally defined – on the world via an act of will. He’s sorta like Honey Badger in that he don’t take no shit. And he’s not squeamish about eating the head offa snake if that’s what it takes to get the job done.Report

              • LeeEsq in reply to Stillwater says:

                I see all of these things as basically about being a sacrifice. The concept of a real man is one who ignores his emotions and desires for those of his loved ones or community and does what it takes.Report

          • Chris in reply to Kazzy says:

            I think we might just say “responsible adults” instead of “real men.” Not only because it’s gender neutral, but it captures most of what “real men” is supposed to mean without all the, er, patriarchal baggage.Report

    • Kim in reply to Glyph says:

      Please tell me you can at least balance a checkbook…
      Restaurants have a 75% death rate in the first six months, because most people who start them bloody don’t have the discipline to run anything.Report

  3. Saul Degraw says:

    I’m so disappointed you don’t look like your icon


  4. Francis says:

    Interesting post. One nit, though. You write: “As yet, we haven’t inverted Freud’s famous question and simply asked: what does man want? Men have attempted, of course, to pose this question and conceptualize a recovered, non-social manhood with mixed success.”

    The second sentence correctly negates the first; plenty of people have asked that question. I think you might want to add “successfully” before “inverted”.

    (I also think that “non-social manhood” or, for that matter, a “non-social womanhood” is an oxymoron. We are intrinsically a social species. Hermits are deviants.)Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Francis says:

      Good points! I was driving at “successfully” or “fully” and not quite getting there. “Non-social” was my attempt at naming what it is about our existence that is not given socially, that is beyond the social realm. ‘Existential manhood’ seems to take it in a whole different direction. I do know what you mean about us being intrinsically a social species, but it seems that much of gender politics relies on the assumption that social norms somehow warp us or alter our individual nature, so there would have to be something prior to or beyond society. Of course, now this all sounds a lot like Rousseau, but since the discussion ties back into feminism, it could be that feminism really is strongly Rousseaunian…Report

      • dragonfrog in reply to Rufus F. says:

        That social / non-social manhood section is the part of the essay that has got me scratching my head as well – I’m not sure I believe there is a non-social aspect of manhood. Personhood, humanity, yes.

        But I’m going to be puzzling all day over whether there is any aspect of being a gendered person, that is not a social thing, and if so what that thing might look like.Report

        • Doctor Jay in reply to dragonfrog says:

          Five years ago, I would have agreed with you. Then my daughter came out to us as a trans woman, and I started meeting and listening to and reading about a bunch of trans people, men and women.

          It’s pretty clear that there’s something that whispers to them of their gender, even when they are alone. It may not be much more than “I am supposed to have these kind of body parts instead of those”, but there’s something.Report

          • dragonfrog in reply to Doctor Jay says:

            I hope I haven’t given the impression that I think things that are social are in any way less genuine, less fundamental to who we are. I don’t know that I would use @francis terms above exactly, but I think that our relationships with others, human and non-human, the norms we draw from those relationships, and the way we draw those norms, are profoundly and intrinsically part of what makes us human.

            I suspect that anything that is “beyond the social realm,” other than the basic physical drives of biology, is going to take real hard work to separate out. We’re so deeply social, maybe we can only really see shadows and intimations of it.Report

          • Rufus F. in reply to Doctor Jay says:

            Doctor Jay, I had roughly the same thought that you did when a former friend of mine came out as trans. If we’re going to say that gender is a social construct, wouldn’t that undermine her conviction that she is, in fact, a woman and not a man? Because she knew she was a woman, at all odds with the social programming and I was not comfortable saying she didn’t.Report

        • Kim in reply to dragonfrog says:

          surprisingly, or not so surprisingly, there are plenty of aspects of being a gendered person that aren’t social things.

          But the fun part comes when you try explaining that you’ve got more like three genders…(everyone loves research, right?)Report

  5. Jaybird says:

    Dude. This was an awesome essay.

    I will be chewing on it all day.Report

  6. They rarely have enough staff because they never want to pay more than can be pried from between their clenched teeth.

    Awesome. (“Teeth” substituties for a not-family-friendly body part, right?)Report

  7. greginak says:

    Really good Rufus. I love this “…femme domme fantasies in which every woman is Tura Satana and every male is Spartacus.”

    There is a point where thinking about how gender fits into what you want and where you are going with life is a cul-de-sac. Not that it isn’t important but you can’t get out your own experience at some level. Sure think about how your conception of gender has led you to where you are, but you can’t ask a fish to think about life outside the water. I think some feminists and most MRA’s fall into that trap of focusing so much on gender they don’t see anything else, whether it is commonalities between genders, of which there are many, or they project all their issues onto their gender so they can’t see their individual life with its positives and negatives.

    The wife and i are looking at moving out of Ak in a couple years. That means giving up a good job but we also both want something new. It is a challenge to figure out whether we can get all the good stuff we have here but add more good stuff some place else.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to greginak says:

      I wrote a thing that dealt with MRAs I’d met more extensively, but the gist of my take on them was that when people are living in bad situations, the moment that they liberate themselves can be one of the most powerful in their lives; the problem is when people want to live within that moment for years instead of moving on to the next stage of life.Report

  8. James K says:

    Very thought-provoking Rufus.Report

  9. Michael Drew says:

    God, I love this. Thank you.Report

    • …”Death might not be described as decent, but it is reliable.”

      Now that, folks? That’s what we call writing. Or at least turning a phrase.Report

      • …Followed by this:

        “I’m always struck by the dichotomy between how “rational” bosses can be in setting the terms of employment and how moralistic they become in motivating their employees.” …Because that’s the only tool the terms they set leave them with which to do the job!

        This is something I’ve always wanted to be able to say even just in my own head, but would never have been able to. Now I can just say it over and over over in there!

        (Luckily my current boss is not this way.)Report

      • North in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Yeah that one is going in my quote book.Report

  10. Chris says:

    Very nice.Report

  11. Maribou says:

    I’m so glad to see your writing every time you post. This was particularly well done.Report

  12. Michael Cain says:

    Really, really good, Rufus.Report

  13. Rufus F. says:

    Thanks all! This site is a real shot in the arm because I can send something like this to a bunch of outlets and get radio silence or the generic no thanks message: “Thanks for thinking of us. I don’t think this piece is quite right for _____. Good luck placing it elsewhere.” And then I’ll post it here and think “Yeah, I thought it was pretty good.” So, it’s much appreciated!Report

  14. Stillwater says:

    A long time ago, when I was still wet behind the ears concerning all things Adult, a wise man (eg, and actual Adult) gave me some offhand advice: don’t leave unless you know where you’re going. The narrow context in which it was uttered was opening a door (like, a literal one) but a larger one lurked behind, one that clearly resonated with me. One that I think is a good operational principle to this very day. (I still haven’t left that little room…) So I don’t know about the merits of leaving for leaving’s sake, even tho I get that a big adventure requires taking that first step. So while part of me is inclined to respect Gary for finally putting an end to the misery of his daily work-life, another part thinks that if he were capable of finding a better work life he wouldn’t have had to so radically sever the current ties. And if so, then he hasn’t taken the first step on the next big adventure, but something else. I dunno, tho. Of course. I mean, what the hell do I know?

    Also, I’m not sure that the existential issues you talk about towards the end of the post ought to be framed in terms of teasing out a concept of what it means to “be a man” in social, or non-social, or wildly-primordial terms. It seems to me that *that* issue just collapses into the bigger existential issue of the “why am I here?” variety, one which cannot be arrived at thru ratiocination. I don’t say that to dispute anything substantive you’ve said about feminism or Robert Bly, but rather to dispute the suggestion that even *more* intellectualizing will provide the right type of answer for the worries you address.Report

  15. Kolohe says:

    another upvote for this article.Report

  16. Miss Mary says:

    This is great, thank you for sharing.

    If this is a midlife crisis, I’ve had three of them all before I’ve gotten to 30. I guess I’m just tough to please. I can’t stand in one place for too long.Report

  17. I haven’t read the comments yet, but I just wanted to say I really liked this piece.Report

  18. Roland Dodds says:

    Excellent piece @rufus-f. You put to paper many thoughts I have had on this subject over the years.Report

  19. Patrick says:

    We need more of these. Get to work.

    As yet, we haven’t seriously and successfully inverted Freud’s famous question and simply asked: what does man want?

    I suspect part of the problem we have is trying to take these very individual questions (“What does he want? What does she want?”) and make them into guidance or prescriptive questions (“What should we encourage them to be in order to enable them to have the best likelihood of being avatars of their group?” for some group to which we believe they belong.)

    I know what I want.

    I don’t think that gives me any particular insight into what anyone else *should* want, though.

    I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the question of what everybody should want is one of the most perniciously, subtly, evil questions humankind has been obsessed with for longer than we can collectively remember.Report

  20. Doctor Jay says:

    I too, really liked this piece. Though I find midlife to be far less mysterious or threatening than some do. When we hit it, most of my friends just said, “Well, I realized that if I actually wanted to do all those things that I’d been telling myself that I’d do, I’d better get on with it.”

    But then, as a group they are reasonably privileged economically, which makes that sort of thing much easier.Report

  21. Kim says:

    Not having a midlife crisis is easier when you’ve adjusted to the probability of not living past the age of 25. When death dogs your heels, it’s suddenly a bit less of a thing to plan for the future.Report

  22. Will H. says:

    When you’re driving around with an assfull of corn flakes and you hit a speed bump, something’s got to give.
    Young hearts can go their way, and all that.Report

  23. David Ryan says:

    We just rented a shop space and will be staffing up in the next week or so; maybe Gary would like to come work on Mon Tiki Largo for a few months while he sorts things out. If he’s good with a pastry bag I can make him into a boat builder in short order.Report