I used to be cute. I’m an adult male in modern day America. Describing myself as “cute” isn’t the image we’re taught to aim for. When people used to describe me this way, I took it as an insult as much as a compliment. Cute was for kittens; or girls’s shoes. Men weren’t meant to be cute. We were meant to be rugged, strong, & brave. And, if you insist–sure, handsome. Oh, & don’t forget strong & tall. Growing up, boys were trained to be sexy, carnivorous, semi-tame apex predators. We would either become LIONS; or FOOD for the LIONS. But cute was as good as I could muster; so I had no choice but to stick with it. I was strong but never tall, so no one believed I was strong. And, before I had access to a real gym with its endless supply of 45 lbs plates, my strength was relative to men much larger than I was. But then, with the help of the decently sized college that I attended (gym access) combined with the natural weight gain that occurs in males after the age of 25 or so (pizza & burgers), I morphed into a sturdy enough male to go about my daily life relatively risk free.
But night time was different. With the darkness came the night scene. Clubs & bars with groups of young reckless males organized into small war parties on the prowl for beautiful & sometimes intoxicated girls. This was a world of crowded dance floors, short tempers, & extreme posturing from both genders. This was no environment for anyone other than the apex predators—the lions were out! I was more of a leopard myself. Solitary, exotic, & mysterious cats–not the largest predator but strong enough; & often the most cunning. Leopards are powerful enough carnivores to co-exist with lions; but they’re simply not large enough to confront the them. Leopards aren’t strong enough to be too proud, instead relying on the combination of their overall attributes. Leopards simply aren’t big enough to be king. They are condemned to resign themselves to success in the shadows; on the outskirts of the lion’s territory. It didn’t take long for me to tire of playing the part of the leopard. I wanted to challenge for the crown.
But first, back to the cute thing. It wasn’t so much that girls were falling all over themselves to date me. It’s more that they almost universally reacted positively to me. I have the personality of a Labrador puppy. Those dogs are so full of energy & enthusiasm; they have no concept of the term stranger. The Labrador pup more describes me than the leopard metaphor overall. I’d rather have someone feed me than have to hunt to eat. And back when I was cute, that’s exactly what happened! I’d go into fast food restaurants & strike up a conversation with the pretty girl taking my order. I wouldn’t think anything of it; I wasn’t angling for anything, I just liked being out & interacting with people. Frequently, I’d go to pay & receive a bill with a $0.00 balance & a smile. This even happened at more formal sit down restaurants. I remember yacking it up with the tall, slim blonde at our local I-HOP-type restaurant. My brother was stunned when our garrulous waitress came back from our request to pay the bill & instead leaned over to me to whisper: “Can you guys keep a secret? It’s on us tonight.”
“Gosh! What did you do?” my brother demanded as we walked to the car afterwards. “Nothing,” I replied. “Oh, you used your boyish charm!” he retorted.
Timeout. Keep in mind that as a male in his mid-twenties at the time, “boyish charm” was an insult to me. But I never went out with the 19-year-old waitress. I never even asked for her phone number. By all “manly” accounts, I struck out. But still, this instance of “striking out” demonstrates what I’m trying to convey. I used to be “cute;” not “sexy.” I was a leopard, not a lion. Or really, more accurately put–a Labrador retriever.
All this time, I yearned to be taken seriously. I pushed myself to become a sturdy man & not a cute boy. I was tired of getting carded every time we went out & other men failing to abide by common courtesies when I was out with my girlfriends.
Then suddenly, everything changed. People started calling me “Sir” in stead of “you boys” or “young man” when I’d patronize a local establishment. Bartenders would serve me without so much as a blink of an eye. The college girls working at the local grocery would scan my beer by punching in some imaginary DOB into the system. I looked at a receipt once & it said, “Visually Verified” next to my beer purchase. I’d have young men who towered over me physically at the gym defer to my statements & gather around me when we spoke sports, politics or other weighty matters as though they knew what a wealth of life experience I was. The change was just like night & day; as if by the flick of a switch. This all started about four years ago.
But around that same time, I found myself interacting on a personal level with a wider audience. Anyone from retired widows to bulky thirty-year old power lifters to high school students would engage me in polite & often enthusiastic conversation. It’s not as though I had a rich social life because I worked so much. After work, I’d work out & sleep as my primary recreational activities. But I have two jobs that involve working with the public & I lift weights frequently at our local health club. I also like to eat out to reward myself a couple of times a week. And these moments offered me numerous opportunities to engage in a variety of friendly but mostly casual conversations. However, I noticed that a larger percentage of the younger women–say, the 18-24 demographic–no longer reacted to me as positively. They were usually polite; but often brief & much less enthusiastic than any of the rest of my co-workers, patrons, or community members. I was perplexed. My personality hadn’t changed. I was sturdier & more grown-looking than ever before. And my audience of casual friends had the widest range age groups & backgrounds then ever before. Why wouldn’t the pretty college-aged girls who used to smile at me & give me free food & talk to me for hours at the local Walmart suddenly act aloof around me? Weren’t they proud to recognize that the exuberant Labrador puppy had finally evolved into a predator capable of challenging the great lion? I had finally achieved what I had been yearning to accomplish since puberty. I finally had my respect.
This past weekend, I went home to visit my parents. This isn’t totally unusual, but what was different this time is that I stayed overnight in the bedroom I used when I moved back home after college. Truth be told, I had been in & out of this room at various times throughout my twenties. I’d put up favorite photos from over those years on the mirror above the chest of drawers. I couldn’t sleep so I found myself checking out these pictures from my younger adulthood. And then, like a punch from a heavyweight boxer, the answer to the question I had been asking hit me straight between the eyes. I could tell that the young man in these pictures “resembled” me, but no longer represented what I currently look like. I looked at my modern day reflection in the mirror & then at a picture from my youth. It was like one of those scenes from a movie. Almost before my eyes, the reflection looking back at me devolved from the dashing young upstart man to a man who has survived numerous struggles & had overcome endless obstacles. The reflection looking back at me looked like a survivor; but one whose survival had come at a cost. Gone was the boyish charm I saw frozen in the pictures that flanked the reflection of my true self. They say that a picture paints a thousand words. I’d summarize this in one a single dual clause sentence. I may still feel like a Labrador puppy on the inside; but the world sees a old warhorse.
Growing up is bitter sweet. Growing old(er) is well, bitter. And sweet. Sweet because there is still so much life to live; so many places to; so many people to meet & so many experiences to turn into memories. And of course, my scars to endure. Ever since I put down my toys to talk football, girls, cars, & ambition–I had prayed for the day the world would finally see me as a man. And now that said day has finally arrived, I’m wondering why I never considered that achieving my Holy Grail of dreams would come without a cost. But now I know that everything has a cost. There’s nothing for free. I finally achieved the self-assuredness & I had long sought; I had finally won some respect. But no one told me that in order to gain what I’ve always wanted, I’d have to lose something that I already had of equal value.
I’ve always heard the saying & I’m sure you have too. Be careful what you wish for. Because if & when it finally happens, it often comes at a heavy cost. Before you “Wish upon a star,” be sure to READ THE FINE PRINT.
I learned a harsh lesson this weekend. I told my sister that sometimes, when you yearn for an answer to a question that burdens you . . . you rarely consider that knowing could be just as painful as not knowing. But I also learned a positive lesson.
We’re always in a rush to acquire what we don’t have. That’s the American dream in a nutshell. But maybe we’ve got it all wrong. After this weekend, I have a new goal. I plan to appreciate the things I already have at least as much as I obsess over the things I don’t. Sometimes it helps to take a breathe & slow down. That gives us more time to READ THE FINE PRINT.