Wednesday, January 25

The Inner Lives of Men

The Inner Lives of Men
Judith Warner, NYT

Something earthshaking happened a few days ago. My husband called home and announced that he had Something to Say.

“You know how you always say I don’t tell you anything about myself?” he asked. “Well, I have something to tell you now.”

I immediately got off call-waiting, shut down my laptop, shooed the children from the kitchen and turned off the gas under whatever it was I was burning on the stove. (“That smell is zucchini. It’s not burnt, it’s lightly fried. I happen to like it like that.”)

“Are you ready?” he said.

A bit of prehistory: About a year ago, a friend of mine called and described to me how my husband’s general reticence about all things personal gave him an aura of intrigue and mystery and added, generally, to his popularity in our little circle of displaced New Yorkers and other existential misfits in Upper Northwest Washington.

“I mean, he’s really smart, of course, and really funny, and we love him for that,” she confided. “But you always feel, with Max, that if only you could get to know him better, there’s so much more that he could say.”

I knew what she meant. The disconnect between Max’s daunting intellect, his breadth of knowledge, brilliant capacity for synthesizing information and repackaging it into smart and unique ideas, and the utter paucity of what, on a personal level, he has to say for himself, has been an endless source of fascination for friends and family members for as long as I’ve known him.

In his defense, though, he’s not alone in this condition. Indeed, as Michael Gurian explains, in “What Could He Be Thinking: How a Man’s Mind Really Works,’’ which I discovered recently while procrastinating, a relative lack of ability to make compelling personal revelations is a hard-wired feature of the male brain.

The corpus callosum, a small bundle of nerves that permits communication between the brain’s right and left hemispheres, is, Gurian notes, on average 25 percent smaller in men than in women. “Because of this,” he writes, “men don’t connect as many feelings to words, or even thoughts to words.”

He goes on:

If the feeling or thought needs to move from the right to the left hemisphere, a man has 25 percent less chance of moving it over. This is crucial because the male brain does its language in the left hemisphere, while women use six or seven cortical areas for language in both hemispheres. The end result is that men have a more difficult time making language out of experience than women do. In fact, they use, on average, about half the amount of words that women do.

(And while we’re having a good time exploring men’s natural-born deficiencies, see the biological basis of their lack of “emotional intelligence”; autism’s possible link to the “extreme male brain”; and the male sex’s propensity toward schadenfreude.)

As soon as I got off the phone with my friend, I called Max, who was, as always, at the office.

“Ah, yes,” he said, the sound of a keyboard clicking away in the background. “People think I have undiscovered depths. But they’re wrong.”

I met my husband in 1988. I married him in 1989. I considered him then, and have continued, till today, to think of him as the smartest person I’ve ever met, as well as the funniest, and, generally, the best all-around friend and companion imaginable. But everything I know about him now I learned in the first year, in those endless volleys of personal revelations that tend to accompany falling in love.

As the years, as the decades now, have passed, I have kept up a steady stream of personal information, often, indeed, sending Max screaming, newspaper clamped over his ears, from the room. But his own divulgences have slowed to what can hardly be described as a trickle.

He describes his work days as “fine” or “You don’t want to know.” What little bits of information I can glean about his out-of-home life usually come when we’re out to dinner with other people. I learn of his phone and e-mail communications because his interlocutors, too frustrated to go on dealing with him, usually end up forwarding their messages to me.

Sometimes, at dinner parties, when people ask him the usual questions about himself (Where are you from? What did your parents do? What is your background? Religion? Maternal language?), I step into the denotative silence to answer the questions myself, weaving together his past comments, testimony from his father and mother and half-siblings, even portions of his as-yet-unpublished novel, just to keep the conversation going.

This annoys him, but words must flow.

So you can imagine my supreme, extreme, show-stopping joy and pleasure when that voice at the other end of the phone line said, “I have something to share.

“You always say I don’t tell you anything,” he continued. “And that this puts distance in our marriage. And I’ve been worrying about that. And now I have something to tell you.”

He sounded proud. Clearly, this had been working on him for some time.

“Today,” he said, shy, but with growing self-confidence. “Well, today… You know how I always go out at lunchtime to buy a sandwich?”

“Yes!” My heart leapt.

“Well, today, I had my sandwich on rye bread. And do you know what?” he paused significantly. “I really like rye bread.”

He pronounced the words “rye bread” like the name of an exotic foreign city. It sounded like a newly coined psychiatric diagnosis.

“How much of it did you eat?” I asked him. (LSD, let’s remember, came originally from rye ergot.)

“Just a sandwich,” he said, daintily. “I think I might get one everyday.”

I started to laugh in little nose-stuffed shrieks. My children ran into the room in alarm.

“It’s true,” I gasped. “You have no hidden depths.

“In fact,” I fairly screamed. “After all these years, I’m just discovering: You’re simply not all that smart!”

A postscript:

My husband was actually quite pleased by my reaction. For now that I’ve determined, once and for all, that he indeed does lack depth, has a rather limited inner life, and, I’m afraid to say, may well be far less intelligent than we’ve all previously imagined, there’s only one thing left for me to do: Treat him like a sex object.