On Walking and Chewing Gum

Thoughts of a gentle bloke in 2022

I have no idea whether I’m going to click ‘publish’ when I’ve finished this. Perhaps it will languish as a draft for weeks; perhaps it will be published in the small hours of the morning. Then I may tear back the bedcovers with a resounding ‘Nooooooo!’ at break of day and rush to my computer to delete it.

It wouldn’t be the first article of mine to meet that fate, not by a long chalk, so you’d best read quickly, hypothetical reader.

Let me start by acknowledging that this is written in a wider context in which my petty sorrows and existential trivialities are of infinitesimal consequence. Further, that I have, as an individual, an Australian, a person of pinko-grey complexion and the possessor of a Y chromosome to go along with my X, much to be thankful for.

That said, as individuals we must walk and chew gum: strive to be both decent members of our multiple overlapping communities and attentive to our own emotional housekeeping. Each is perhaps the corollary of the other.

And all is not well in my untidy inner household. It has not been well for a long time; perhaps it has never been well. I suspect that goes with a writer’s job description. To distil my current malaise into a single sentence:

This is a difficult and unhappy time to be a gentle and kind man.

There: it has been written, and already I feel the urge to delete this and bugger off back to bed. It’s 4:40 a.m.

We are frequently told, as men — and society is fond of addressing us as if we were all card-carrying members of some collective*, or even a multi-penised superorganism — that we should open up more. Be less stoic, more emotional, less toxic in our masculinity.

*Yeah, we all get that, whatever our gender. I know.

Then, when we put the cards timorously on the table, it’s: ‘Oh fuck off with your whining, man-baby.’

Admittedly, much depends on context. Interrupt a woman’s desperate or furious plea for empathy and support with ‘Yes, but now let’s talk about why as a man I have it sooooo baaaaad,’ and the above is a reasonable response.

But there are reasons why we males tend to end our lives prematurely, and a wish to inconvenience women is probably not high on the list. We have our genuine struggles, too.

One of my struggles is that I do not particularly like men.

I don’t know why this is so, and the illogic of it pains me. It rather contradicts my plea for empathy and goodwill, as an individual man, doesn’t it? I feel that I should like men more. I’m a traitor to my sex, and a hypocrite.

Be that as it may, if you’re a woman, I’m immediately more at ease with your physical presence in my vicinity, better disposed towards you generally. Women have been the vast majority of my friends, colleagues, fellow students, bosses and clients over the decades. We’ve commiserated, confided, laughed and cried, talked, listened, walked and got drunk together. Sometimes all at once.

My only romantic relationships have been with women, although at times I’ve flirted with gay male friends and maybe wondered ‘What if …?’ from the safe distance of years.

With men, I generally expect to have to talk about shit I don’t really care about: sport, cars and motorbikes, popular music, work, travel, etc. Politics can be a meeting ground or a minefield. Gardening is safe and fertile ground. (Sorry, couldn’t resist that. Smart-arse.)

Generally, in conversation with men, I feel that I’m acting a part – poorly. I don’t like the competitiveness of male conversation, that tedious fucking jocularity in place of sincerity and vulnerability, the great gusts of laughter, the booming voices. Then I catch myself doing it.

There’s more to it. Men’s very physical presence can make me mildly uneasy. Maybe it’s a pheromone thing.

Anyhow, it has turned out to be lonely, being a man who doesn’t really get on that well with men. Abundant female company was for me one of the great delights of studying Modern Languages, even when I was a shy, virgin 20-year-old who had to get drunk to ask a girl out. Working in publishing in Oxford was great, too. It was a female-populated industry, though not as female-dominated at upper levels as it ought to be, given that fact.

Since moving to Australia, my social life has become increasingly arid. In that respect — in that one respect — being a freelance writer working from home in regional Australia has not been good for me. Truth be told, I just don’t see many people, day to day. COVID has really fucked up what scraps of social life I had. When I’m with people now, I can usually hide behind a musical instrument.

Most of the women I was close friends with as a young man had little difficulty forming closer friendships with their own sex, and if they had men in their lives, those may well have wondered what I was ‘up to’, hanging around ‘their’ women. A large proportion of my female friends later ‘settled down’ and had babies, then the babies had babies, after an appropriate interval. That didn’t leave much time for odd conversations with an odd fish.

And fair enough. As a childless man, I’ve always been rather in awe of parents, the ones who’ve made a decent job of it and even the ones who’ve tried and failed heroically.

Looking at the wider picture, it seems to me that there is an innate distrust of men in this society in 2022. It’s hardly surprising, reading the headlines on any given day.

Still, as an individual human being, it hurts, even as I understand and empathise. ‘Understand and empathise’? Fuck that. The horror of what some men do to women, the hatred, the arrogance, the entitlement, it withers me. It makes me want to curl up in a ball and scream.

But the little things, the tiny things still hurt. I’m ashamed to admit it, but they do.

It hurts that younger women won’t greet me out walking, in a friendly little town where greeting strangers in the street is the norm. (It’s becoming less so as the town expands rapidly. Maybe soon we’ll be at Melbourne levels of anonymity.)

That one time a little boy felt the need to warn his mother that ‘Uh-oh’ there was a man coming along the path was a dagger through my heart, even though his mother and I had a chuckle about it. Then there was the teenage girl who looked utterly terrified when we met on the walking path up by the lake, poor kid.

The fear of provoking fear sometimes leads me to quite absurd behaviour. There was the one excruciating time when I failed to recognise my female neighbour and her teenage daughters out around town, even after some moments’ conversation, because for years I had studiously avoided peering at them over the fence. To be fair: my eyesight is a bit shit and glasses have never been that great at correcting it.

As an accidental man in 2022, I feel increasingly alienated and confused, and that is probably why I write fiction in which lonely people achieve meaningful friendships, in which men and women are kind and gentle to each other and relationships are rarely predatory.

So, that’s what I wanted to say. I’ll probably delete it.

4 thoughts on “On Walking and Chewing Gum

  1. Ah, yes, I know the exactly what you mean: the please don’t think I’m a creeper thoughts start creeping in, which cause you to act more awkward, at which point they become a self-fulling prophecy. Funny, sometimes when I sell honey, I’ll meet people in the parking lot at a local shopping as a common public drop off location. Once I was supposed to meet a lady in a white mini-van parked toward the back of the parking lot. Well, I pulled up to the white mini-van rolled down my window and told her I had her honey. Only, it was the wrong mini-van and wrong woman, and she looked absolutely horrified. I tried to explain but that fear of provoking fear has stuck with me.

    Liked by 1 person

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