FEW MONTHS AGO, A MAJOR MIDWESTERN NEWSPAper accepted an essay I had written on the topic of being over 40 and never married. The editor called and asked me to suggest a headline that would tie in with Valentine's Day, the date of publication. My subject, I explained had nothing whatsoever to do with Valentine's since he had bought the column an paid for it, he could do with it as he pleased. And he did. The headline: my AGING VALENTINE - ON AN OLDER MAN'S THOUGHTS NOT TURNING TO FANcy. Good Lord, I thought, that's me he's talking about. I was filled with woe.
The percentage of the population consisting of ummarried men over 40 has fluctuated between 3 and 6 percent over the years. No one knows why. Sociologists rarely study us, psychologists don't quiz us and politicians don't count us. For all we know, the fluctuation could be due to the length of the fur on autumn caterpillars. Or vice versa. We do know our numbers are increasing this decade and, according to forecasts, will continue to rise in the future. It is not for me to discuss why, but simply to explain who and what we are.
We are a minority group, although we would never qualify for affirmative-action programs. The discrimination against us is benign and curious --and often amusing. ("Did you know he's never married?" "Is he gay?" "I don't think so." "There must be something wrong.") And: ("Have you ever tasted his lasagna?" "Delicious." "He'll make a great wife." Laughter.) Slightly suspect, we innocently create problems in a double-occupancy world. How does one divide an odd number into equal teams for golf, bridge or badminton? ("But I can't have five for dinner. It's not symmetrical." "Ask him to invite a friend." "What if he doesn't have any?")
Although a minority, we are accorded a high degree of social acceptability --higher than single women. We are bachelors; they are old maids. The men's magazines tell us we are forever young; the women's magazines tell them they are already old. The worst adjectives that are ever thrown at us are "confirmed" and "eccentric." Our biological clock has no hands. lfwe at the age of 60 sire a child, we are admired (snow on the roofbut fire in the heart and all that); a mother at that age is tabloid material. Aside from wistful thoughts of a son to teach our secrets of throwing sliders or engaging the girls. the paternal urge lacks the urgency of the maternal, Besides, nowadays cryogenic sex makes coupling unnecessary.
My peers and I are not much into Robert Bly's "Iron John" male thing. Let others sit cross-legged around a fire, outfitted in Pendleton plaid. Taking a journey into the mythopoetic spirit of the male wilderness is best left to men described by Somerset Maugham in "The Moon and Sixpence": "There are men whom a merciful Providence has undoubtedly ordained to a single life [but] have flown in the face of its decrees. There is no object more deserving of pity than the married bachelor."
Having heeded Providence, we aging singles lack an immediate companion with whom to share the good times of a winning lottery ticket or the beauty of a starry night. Social activities are haphazard and precarious. Without a built-in partner, a night out or an afternoon in requires coordination and planning. But sometimes we get seeds that drop from the feeder. ("I have an extra ticket for Saturday night." "Ask Ron. I'm sure he's not busy.")
We have learned to cope with our solitary state. It takes a confident man to dine alone. The less self-assured pretend they are on the road traveling from important client to important CEO, and read an important business journal as if they just don't have the time to eat and socialize simultaneously. They can order water and service for two, glance impatiently at their watches every two minutes, then sigh to the waiter, "I guess she got tied up in court."
Having less need of diversion than other men, we tend to take up solitary hobbies and pastimes -reading, collecting, building something in the basement, exploring rivers and mountains, and asking more "why" and "what if" questions than most people. We tend to be introspective. In our homes there is no one with whom to chit and chat about the weather and the elections. Without time-consuming and weekend-filling household chores, family pleasures and social responsibilities, we talk to ourselves a great deal because there is no one we know as well.
However, we are not hermits. Weighty introspection does not preclude an occasional encounter with contemporary cultural icons: Pearl Jam and Barney, Rollerblading and line dancing, grungy and bungee. We do keep in touch. We try not to make stupid remarks like "I'm too old/mature for that." If we have to put limitations on ourselves, we'll do it tomorrow. Because there are few volleyball leagues, social clubs, newsletters or special days at the ballpark devoted exclusively to single men over 40, we are forced from our clique to enjoy the rewarding diversity of people.
Our married critics say that we are impractical and maintain a fantasy of perfection, that we shun family and parental involvement, that we are too self-centered to have children and-- lowest of all--that we avoid commitment. Perhaps. We have many chances to get married; it's simply that we don't take any. But we understand the suspicions we arouse. We mention our mothers cautiously. We seem to raise Freudian eyebrows.
Contrary to popular opinion, the single life is not in direct opposition to family life. The two situations are not poles apart, not us and-them or winners-and-losers. They are complementary. We make terrific uncles and great nice guys next door. We are serving and standing and waiting.
We aren't stylish, nor were we meant to be. perhaps one brief day we will be in style, writing a best-selling confession or two, trotted out on talk shows, welcomed as the fifth dinner guest. Then after a few days we will go home quietly and continue to make our contributions to society.