It's an epidemic lately: the wistful what-if.
My Generation X
guy pals are consumed by this ailment. "What if I had asked so-and-so to marry me 10 years ago?"
"What if I had agreed to the baby . . . would she have stayed?"
"What if I had moved to Seattle and not stayed close to family?"
Oh, the laments. They play like a Nirvana song among the never-married or divorced former slacker boys.
When I read Andrew Cohen's Politics Daily piece
about the love of his life marrying someone else, the same symptoms popped up. I immediately wanted to invite him out for a beer and listen as he talked about the girl he would one day meet, the one who wants to live on a farm with wireless connections.
Many of my friends have unwillingly assumed the eternal bachelor role. Young marriages they believed would last forever ended badly with baggage. In some instances, marriage was placed on the back burner to travel with a garage band that never hit the charts or a law career that surpassed their wildest judicial dreams. Either way, they are saddled with singleness and have no one to share coffee with on Sunday mornings.
Not that it's a picnic for women, but aging is rough on men. Men tend to lose their hair quicker and more frequently than women – a constant reminder every time they look in the mirror. Unlike women, most men are too vain to lather their face in wrinkle-reducing moisturizer. Women are lucky. We can hide our imperfections with makeup. Men, well, not so much. With cougars looking ten years younger and seeking younger men, 40-something men are left with only 20-something dreams to keep them warm.
One oft-pursued solution: Seek out the young things, like their female cougar counterparts do. I have two single male friends – a never-married and a divorced – who vie continuously for the attentions of an artsy 20-something woman around town. When I told one of them that he was old enough to be her father, he looked at me as if I'd uttered a dead language. I could see him calculating the math in his head. The result, while accurate, was a mood killer.
The Generation X men I know instantly fall in love with the college student who smiles at them at a coffee shop or the tattooed punk rocker they watched playing her guitar in a bar. They friend them on Facebook and cyberstalk them until the wee hours of the morning. These days, middle-aged crushes come as fast as one-night stands did 20 years ago.
A mid-life crisis is nothing new. But for Generation X, it will be extremely painful. Men in their 40s didn't know what they wanted in their 20s. Be a slacker like Ethan Hawke in "Reality Bites,"
or have a beautiful house with a beautiful wife? Now, lost in their 40s, it's the same as it ever was. And Baby Boomers' material possessions – the Corvette and a trophy wife – won't cure it.
Gen X men, here's some free advice. Abandon "what if" and the past loves. "What if" is for young, lonely, tortured poets in slim jeans and ripped rock T-shirts. It looks good on them, not on you. Trust me. Write a letter or poem if you must, but put it in a box and set it afire in the bathtub. For heavens sake, don't let anyone else see it.
Stop living in the post-college years. Abandon REM's greatest hits -- at least for a little while. Update the wardrobe. What looked cool on you 20 years ago (yes, I said 20 years ago) doesn't have the same edge today. You may catch the eye of the young, indie chicklette, but she may not be what you really want for the long haul.
Here's a toast to Andrew. Unlike many men, he knows what he wants. Now step away from the keyboard and go find her.