Up the Valley: Male Men

April 18, 2013

In today’s column in the Star, I dive headlong into the murky waters of the male mind…

Take, for example, my male pets: Briscoe the cat, and Winston the dog. The two have lived together in an uneasy harmony, the former barely tolerating the latter, for over two years. On a good day, the dog will vigorously scrub the insides of the cat’s ears with his tongue. More often mild horseplay erupts into fierce battle, my stunned cat eventually staggering out of a headlock, his fur spiked with dog spit, while the dog sits gleefully panting and drooling nearby.

But suddenly it seems that the balance of power has shifted. A recent wrestling match ended abruptly with a high-pitched yelp from the dog, who limped away as the cat sauntered off wearing a self-satisfied smirk across his face. I’ve even observed my dog streaking past me at a full gallop, followed closely by the cat in hot pursuit, in a role reversal I had only seen previously in Warner Bros. cartoons.

And most surprisingly, Winston and Briscoe — who have never occupied the same room without giving chase — have started sleeping together. Sharing an oversized round sherpa-lined pouf, they slumber peacefully side by side in a perfect yin-and-yang formation. I gather that, having had his butt kicked in battle, my male dog has become what in prison and kennel lingo would be called my cat’s “bitch.” Which leads me to conclude, once again, that I find male-to-male relationship dynamics unfathomable.

I came to a similar conclusion a few years ago, when a buddy was suffering from multiple concurrent crises. His marriage, his health, his business, all seemed to be in serious simultaneous meltdown. I tried to cheer him up, taking him out, drawing him out, and encouraging the full expression of his feelings. I listened patiently, even to the self-pitying protestations, delivered some good solid advice, but still never seemed to make much of an impact. Then one day, miraculously, my friend reported that he was feeling much better. It seems that he had spent the prior weekend with his male best friend, the proximity to whom had benefited him enormously.

“What did he say to you?” I asked, anxious to learn — for future reference — what wise counsel would be most beneficial to male friends in need.

“Nothing,” he replied.

“He said nothing to you?”

“That’s right.”

“What did you two do all weekend?”

“Nothing. We hung out, grabbed some beers, and watched a couple of games.”

“Did you tell him about your problems at all?” I asked.

“I mentioned what was going on, and he just sort of shrugged his shoulders and let me know that he understood.”

“And this made you feel better?”

“Absolutely. Sometimes you just don’t want to talk.”

Now I’m no sociologist, psychotherapist or communications expert, but the only conclusion I could draw from this was that men are really strange. We women rely on constant conversation as talk therapy, endlessly replaying and dissecting our every painful interaction until the sting of it subsides. Men, on the contrary, appear to communicate their feelings to one another via (a) the shared observation of other men engaged in sweaty pursuits, accompanied by (b) the shared consumption of alcoholic beverages, followed by (c) some reassuring exchange of manly grunts and guttural sounds which are inaudible to the female ear.

A group of my male co-workers at a law firm would, in their 20s and 30s, engage in male bonding by randomly picking drunken fights with similar groups of men, emerging slightly bloodied but immensely buoyed. As they became older and out of condition, these same men would take their aggressions out on the baseball field and basketball court, their spirits barely dampened by the fact that one of them turned up with a broken bone or busted head nearly every weekend. And although, like other males, they spent scant time discussing serious feelings, they would spend hours sharing anecdotes illustrating irritation with the women in their lives. By the time I moved to an in-house law job, I was grateful to be barred from the executive, male-only, washroom. I can only imagine what anatomically aggressive forms of competition-as-communication went on in there.

My dog similarly hates to hear about my feelings, particularly when he’s trying to sleep. The other day, as he curled up on the opposite end of the couch, I reached over to pat his rump and whispered “I love you, Winston.” The irritated pooch lifted up his head and glared at me, then exhaled a deep, exaggerated sigh as if to say: “Leave me alone, woman.” Not surprisingly, neither the cat nor the dog has any interest in sleeping anywhere near me anymore. Still, I don’t think — as some friends have suggested — that my pets have gone all “Brokeback Mountain” on me. It’s just a guy thing.