Why Men Still Need to Open That Car Door

In order not to drive myself demented with my own company all day long, I’ve decided to go down the road to Café Neo once or twice a week. At any given time of day, it’s full of folk with their laptops, probably also saving themselves from the insanity that comes with too much solitude. And it’s cosy and quiet and a good spot for getting things done. It’s also the regular hangout of a girlfriend of mine who works from home, and on Wednesday I agreed to met her there so she could tell me the sad story of her Saturday night.

Now, my friend (I’ll call her Emma) has a smoking hot career and earns a bundle of money. She doesn’t need any man to pay her bills, rescue her or look after her in any way. But, she’d like to share her life with somebody, so she dates fairly often and is on the lookout for a life partner. This particular Saturday she invited a guy a friend had set her up with along to a ball and, as one does when it’s a ball, went to a lot of trouble getting ready. She had on a beautiful dress, her hair looked gorgeous and she was wearing sexy heels. But, when she opened the door, he didn’t say a word. Not a ‘wow, you look pretty,’ or even an ‘I like your dress’ – nothing.

And it’s not like he’s obliged to or that she’s desperate for affirmation, but when it’s obvious that a woman who’s usually quite no-nonsense and in boardroom attire goes to a lot of effort to look good, isn’t it just manners or something to tell her she looks nice? Then, on the way to the car, she had to negotiate some steep steps wearing these high heels. When he didn’t notice and offer her his arm, she asked if he wouldn’t mind giving her a hand. And instead of realizing he was amiss, jumping to her side and doing the gentlemanly thing, he pointed out that her heels weren’t that high and that surely she could manage by herself.

And this pretty much carried on the entire evening – he’d pour himself a glass of wine and forget to fill hers; his attention would wander while she was talking, and when his phone rang he took the call even though they were half-way through dinner. Wrong, wrong, wrong. While one would assume he just wasn’t that into her, he actually was, but by the time the end of the evening came and he wanted to know when he could see her again and leaned in for a kiss, she was so over him that it was all beyond redemption. ‘He’s not a bad guy,’ she assured me. ‘He’s actually really nice and smart, he just didn’t get the memo.’

He just didn’t get the memo. And that memo is a big deal. It’s not about men being dominant and women submissive, and neither does it undermine feminism or contradict the truism that women and men are equal in all the ways that count. But, when a man and woman (and a man and a man or a woman and a woman) are together in a certain context there is a particular exchange of energy that happens; a sort of dance of the yin and the yang. And when men do stuff like not fill our wine glass or hold the door so we can walk through first or they walk ten steps ahead of us, that beautiful push-and-pull gets broken, somehow. There’s a type of old world graciousness, if you will, which simply ceases to be.

Of course we women are perfectly capable of pouring our own wine and opening our own doors, and we don’t need or want men to do these things for us always; just sometimes. Because what this really amounts to is a sort of ‘seeing,’ isn’t it? A recognition of our otherness; and a metaphorical kind of hat-tipping to our femininity. While all week long Emma is the boss and makes the decisions and wears the tailored pants, now and again she feels like relinquishing that role and relaxing into a different sort of space where she’s allowed to just be a girl being taken out by a boy. And that’s completely okay. So, men, next time you’re taking somebody somewhere nice and she’s put on a dress and perfume and is looking every part of beautiful, please don’t hold back from telling her. It doesn’t matter if she’s the CEO of the world – tonight she is on a date and in her heart she’s Cinderella. It’s just your job to be the prince.

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On marriage, and how it sometimes feels really, really crap

A very real marriage in summer.
A very real marriage in summer.

There’s a lot of bollocks we’re taught about relationships, but to my mind the cruelest assumption we’re allowed to nurture is that when you’re married things are nearly always going to go great. Yes, there’ll be arguments about who sees whose friends more and which of you didn’t unpack the dishwasher, and maybe even fights about bigger, more important stuff like money and religion, but nothing that won’t blow over within a few hours or, at worst, a few days. And the danger in not telling couples the truth – that, when the bad times come, they don’t always go away quickly; sometimes, they settle in and hang around for quite a while – is that people panic. They didn’t expect this. Why is it so hard? We ask ourselves. It shouldn’t feel like this. Did I marry the wrong person? Maybe we shouldn’t be together?

If only we got warned early on, we wouldn’t feel quite so bewildered when the day comes that you sit across a dinner table from your partner and the distance between you is so immense you’d need an aeroplane to traverse it. You look over at each other over dinner plates and you simply have nothing to say. You see these couples in restaurants all the time – scanning the menu after they’ve ordered; looking up at the ceiling. Because somehow amidst the maelstrom of life and the pressures of raising children, earning money, owning a house, going on holiday, getting to gym, paying parking fines, buying the groceries and doing what needs to be done to survive, you can lose one another. And, with that, the map to find your way back.

An older, wiser divorcee I worked with when I was in my twenties once said to me, ‘there’s nothing quite as lonely as the loneliness you can feel in a relationship,’ and I had no reference at the time, but later I remembered her words and understood exactly what she meant. But, here’s the rub. Barring serious problems where there is no other solution but to part company, if you can muster the courage, the mettle and the good, old-fashioned self-discipline not to bring up the ‘d’ word too often; not to succumb to easy ways out (they’re not easy in reality) and the next hopeful singleton who promises to ‘understand’ you – if you can just take a deep breath and wait this shitty time out – and it can go on foreeeeeever – I promise you with all my heart that the love almost always comes back again, better than it was before.

I’m not saying things can’t get beyond the point of no return, or that there aren’t people who try really hard not to separate and for whom parting ways is the absolute last resort, but I encounter too many who make this move without understanding the ramifications and how painful and devastating this process really is. The end of a marriage isn’t the end of the world, but you have to earn your way out of the relationship, especially when there are children involved. You are allowed to make this move only when there is no other conceivable solution. Because marriage is not going to make you happy; it’s just going to make you married. The happy thing is your responsibility, and all about how much you’re prepared to work at stuff and stick around when times get rough. As they will, without a shadow of a doubt.

Marriages have seasons, and sometimes winter stretches on. But time will pass, things will change, and stuff will happen that will bring you closer to where you were before. And, often without even trying, one day you’ll find yourselves sitting across from each other at that same table with loads of things to say. And your bond will be better and you’ll feel safer and more solid than you ever have because you survived, and you’re a team and in the end it’s the two of you against the world. It’s not better on the other side. It’s a battle of a different kind; plus you have the added complications of blended families, less money, pissed off exes and other peoples’ children. Suffice to say, that grass might look a bit different, but it aint any greener. There are enough divorced people around to testify to this. Just ask them how they’re doing.

That guy you hate with such venom at 9am on an arb Saturday morning that you’d happily put an axe in his head before going out for brunch with your friends? There was a time you wanted him so badly you could barely breathe. That feeling was real, and it hasn’t gone away, it’s just got gotten a buried beneath the crap of everyday life. Wait this period out because, more often than not, what comes at the end of it will be richer and more rewarding than you imagine now. Plus, it’s the best gift you can ever give your children. Ever. Trust me on this. Hanging in there is the better option.

War of the Rice and Other Stupid Things Married People Fight About

My husband is a good cook and I’ve learnt a few tricks from Jamie Oliver over the years, and if we were on TV this would translate to a happy, busy kitchen where he and I wear matching aprons and amazing dishes get churned out like on a little cartoon conveyor belt. Except, the fact that we are married and this is real life means that it’s not quite the case. What we learnt early on in our relationship (as in, the first time we ever cooked dinner together) is that as we both have strong opinions on how things should be done, it’s better for everyone if, at any given time, there is one designated chef, while the other one stays the hell out of the kitchen. Or, at least maintains a safe and respectful distance. And, if one has an opinion on what’s going on in the other one’s pan they do not, under any circumstances, offer it. And we stick to this agreement, and therefore stay married.

But sometimes something happens which throws a spanner in the works of our domestic solution, and that thing is being in someone else’s house who has asked us, as a couple, to perform some sort of culinary task. In this particular instance, that task was to cook the rice which was to accompany a very delicious lamb potjie. Now rice, of all things, should be child’s play, and is – except for the fact that my husband insists on cooking it this really weird way. He boils it and then turns off the heat with the notion that it will stay hot long enough to absorb the remaining water and be perfect when served. Which is great in theory, but anyone who knows anything KNOWS that rice is to be cooked gently on a low heat till all the water is gone. Because that’s the way my mom did it and therefore it must be right.

So, I break the golden rule and point this out to him because our friends have spent the whole day cooking this nice dish and now it’s going to be ruined by silly rice. When it becomes obvious that our little disagreement is not going to reach resolution anytime soon, I elicit the help of the other guests to explain to him the error of his ways. Unfortunately, the person standing closest happens to be another guy and, in accordance with Guy Law, there is no way this dude – while he agrees with me TOTALLY, I can see it in his eyes – is going to backstab another dude and let me, the chick, win.

So, the guy pretends to agree with him which naturally makes my husband very pleased. And though I try to pull my girlfriends into our little tiff, they’re being all diplomatic and not wanting to take sides. So, I take it upon myself, when nobody is looking, to turn the rice back on and try and salvage his swampy carb. Unfortunately, by this stage I have put away a good portion of Shiraz and when my girlfriends start sharing rude stories about their sex lives, I kind of get distracted and forget I’ve turned the gas on high. Nothing terrible happens – I don’t destroy the kitchen or anything – but the bottom of the pot is a little black by the time I stop shrieking and notice something is burning. Which kind of messes up my smug sense of righteousness.

ANYHOW, the food was all delicious and even if it hadn’t been, nobody would have noticed because we were laughing so hard and having so much fun that night, and I felt a bit silly the next day for going on and on about it. It’s weird how combative you can get when you’re married and how being right can become the most important thing. I wish I could say I’d learnt a lesson, and that the next time I don’t agree with something trivial he does – like cook rice the wrong way – I’ll shut the hell up and mind my manners. But, what are the chances of that?

Maybe men aren’t as shit as we think. Just a thought.

So, this morning I woke up to a long, considered letter from a guy I went to school with accusing me (albeit in gentler terms) of male bashing, and challenging me to come up with something positive about men for a change. Which led to a rather painful, pre-coffee discussion with my husband about whether I could, in fact, come up with 10 nice things to say about the other gender (he assured me I couldn’t). Writing this without a hefty dose of generalization is going to be impossible, so bear with me. Let’s see if I can do this. Here are 10 awesome things about men:

1. Men don’t hold grudges
While we women will sulk till the cows come home, guys will have it out with each other and move on. Which saves a lot of time and unnecessary bad blood.

2. Men are long-suffering
While women will nitpick, whine and find fault with the smallest details of their lives, men will just get on with things – all the while working really hard to make sure we have nice stuff.

3. Men are generous to a fault
Someone will do something pretty crap to my husband and he’ll usually shrug it off as them having a bad day and not think about it again. Should the same thing happen to me, I’d probably plot their painful demise. Gotta hand that to him.

4. Men try hard to please us
They really do. I don’t see a lot of that coming from women, on the other hand. We force our men to be different – to open up, talk about their emotions and be sensitive to our feelings. But we’re not really prepared to change in the same way because we believe we’re always right. So, often the compromising is a little one-sided. In my experience, anyway.

5. Modern men are amazing fathers despite having had no blueprint for fathering
I have male friends whose fathering makes me look like Anna Wintour. They’re patient, hands-on, attentive and engaged, and somehow they figure out how to be these things without having had any proper fathering of their own. It impresses and humbles me to the nth degree.

6. The men I know are great feminists
Despite the fact that a mere 50 years ago women were being ordered to put a ribbon in their hair and have a good dinner ready when their husbands came home from work, I’ve only been involved with men who are encouraging and endlessly supportive of the women in their lives.

7. Men don’t care when we gain weight
They don’t. It’s us putting the pressure on ourselves.

8. Men are easy to please
You’ve heard the jokes about beer and blowjobs. It’s not quite as simple as that, but almost.

9. Men aren’t conniving
They’re more inclined than women are to tell it like it is, which means there’s less second-
guessing and game-playing involved. Usually you know where you stand.

10. Men will write letters to women complaining that they’re being misrepresented
Which means that they care what we think and that they want things to be different. And they’re getting different, it just takes time.

SO THERE.

10 Things I Know About Men at 40 That I Didn’t Know at 20

Writing for women’s magazines for close on 20 years has taught me some stuff about men and relationships. Here are a few biggies every girl needs to know:

– It doesn’t matter how awesome you are, if he’s not ready to settle down it’s never going to happen.

– He’ll say anything to shag you, but only when he knows you’re not the right girl.

– If he’s 30 or older and has never been in a serious relationship there’s a reason for that. Beware.

– Men want exactly the same things women do – to be loved, nurtured and respected.

– Consistent kindness is much more important than grand gestures. The guy who showers you with expensive gifts is often not the guy who shows up when you really need him.

– Men reveal themselves in the first few minutes of meeting you, so listen carefully to what he says. If he says he doesn’t want children, for example, you need to believe him.

– By the same token, he’ll tell you (without meaning to) how the relationship will end. Listen for clues like, ‘I’m bad at commitment/I was unfaithful/none of my relationships have lasted longer than three months.’ It’s a warning to you.

– If he cheated on his girlfriend/wife with you, rest assured he’ll cheat on you, too.

– The way he speaks about other people says more about him than it does about them. He’s mean about his ex? He’s a mean guy. Run for the hills.

– If he regularly needs ‘space’ or you find yourself making a lot of concessions to be with him, chances are he’s just not that into you. And he never will be. Leave, and find somebody else.

How Married People Start Sounding Like Rainman (Part 2)

I’m thinking this could become a series. Herewith Sunday night:

Him: There’s a new movie out called Pacific Rim.
Me: Pacific what?
Him: Pacific Rim.
Me: What?
Him: Rim.
Me: What’s a rim? How can the Pacific have a rim?
Him: Listen to me: PACIFIC RIM.
Me: The rim of the Pacific? How can the Pacific have a rim? How can the sea have a rim?
Him: Oh, for fuck’s sake.

I still I have no idea. Anyone wanna shed light?

What women get wrong about men

Somewhere between mainstream religion, university courses in gender politics and an emotionally absent male parent I developed a bit of a bad attitude about men. I assume things about them – bad things – and while I know that, intellectually, it’s wrong to judge people on the basis of their gender (what a hypocrite, right?) and I personally know plenty of men who defy this stereotype (my husband, for one) one visit to my gym, the sight of a woman in a burka or having a man drive by me and make a tyre sound with his lips, and these feelings resurface.

But now and again something will happen that slaps me upside the head and makes me realize that the good guys – Per, ex-boyfriends, male friends I love and respect – are as victimized as I am by a system that expects them to do and be certain things. And I’m grateful for these moments because being angry is exhausting. I wish they would happen more. So, here’s what happened: Per’s best friend is a member of what my friend Vanessa calls the lucky sperm club. Looks-wise, he’s something of a genetic freak – dark tan, piercing blue eyes, insanely straight, white teeth. He’s a very good-looking guy. Plus, he’s honest and kind and forthcoming, and he’s like family and we adore him.

So, a few Sundays ago he comes over for lunch and we’re hanging out by the pool when he starts telling us about how, in one day, two different women approached him at gym and invited him out for coffee. But not in a braggy, look-at-me way, rather in a contrite, ashamed kind of way because, as he went on to explain, he was so taken aback and intimidated that he didn’t know what to do, and even though he would have liked very much to go out for coffee (he’s between relationships and a little lonely and would love to meet the right woman), he mumbled his excuses and they went away. Now he’s berating himself for being such a wuss, and while I understand wussdom very well, I would never associate it with him. He is the kind of guy I would definitely make assumptions about. And they would be wrong.

I don’t know who these women were, and again, I’m assuming things, but if I put myself in their shoes, I imagine it took a fair amount of courage to approach the hot guy on the stationary bike, and I can only imagine that when he said no the last thing on their minds was the possibility that he was shy. They probably thought it was because he thought they were unattractive which couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve been thinking about this story ever since, and how many times in my life I must have judged men and drawn erroneous conclusions based on my own baggage and ‘stuff.’

Who knew men (never mind hot men) were so easily flustered and daunted by women? I, for one, did not. And I’m glad I do, and I’ll try to check myself the next time I’m tempted to judge somebody because he happens to have a penis. I promise.