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JOSEPH N. BELL

Men, Women: Celebrate Differences

November 27, 1990|JOSEPH N. BELL

Our favorite shrink dropped by the other Friday afternoon for an end-of-the-workweek drink. It was warm enough to sit in our back yard, and the talk was as good as the weather. It was mostly about men and women.

The subject was on my mind for several reasons. Two newspaper stories that day had caught my attention. One had to do with the deep soup that Executive Editor Max Frankel of the New York Times found himself in when he told a symposium on "Women and the Media" at the Columbia School of Journalism that it is now easier for him to fire women than blacks because there are more women in the newsroom these days.

He was talking about the politics of the workplace, explaining that "when a woman screws up, it is no longer a political act for me to fire her . . . but (the newspaper's blacks) are still precious, still hothouse in management."

In the ensuing predictable brouhaha in which he was scalded by several black female reporters and reminded that the New York Times ranks last among major newspapers in female bylines, he compounded the felony by adding: "If you are covering local teas, you've got more women than if you're the Wall Street Journal."

The same day, the subsequently defeated Democratic candidate for governor of Massachusetts, John Silber, noted that day care has resulted in a "generation of abused children by women who have thought that a third-rate day care center was just as good as a first-rate home." Whereupon the head honcho of the National Organization for Women allowed as how Silber was the greatest threat to local women since the Boston Strangler.

Now, I'm not about to get into the same deep soup by defending either one of these outrageous--and reasonably stupid--assertions (although Frankel's original comment was probably a simple statement of fact) except to suggest the possibility that both of them might have been made with tongue slightly in cheek. I wasn't there so I don't know--but I do know that tongue-in-cheek is a posture that gets no points from the more ardent feminists. Humor is not their long suit--especially bad humor, which is regarded as a poor disguise for macho sentiments, and probably is.

OK, so men are paying the price for fostering many years of male-female inequality in the workplace by having to tread lightly with women in certain ways in which men deal with each other routinely. And I think one reason men are having difficulty with this is that some feminists seem to want to equalize the sexes rather than equalize treatment of the sexes. And that's an enormous difference.

Men and women are happily, joyfully, delightfully and fundamentally very different--and I'm not talking about the physical differences. They're individually different too, of course, but that's another matter. Right now I'll stick to the generalizations.

Our psychiatrist friend said that if 10 men and 10 women--all strangers--were put into a room together, within a few moments the women would be split into small groups talking animatedly to one another, while the men would be reading or watching television. Within an hour, the women would know a great deal about each other while the men would probably still be strangers.

He told an illuminating story about a man who was being pressed to remarry several years after a long, failed marriage. The man was resisting and was finally asked if he preferred to be alone. He said, no, that wasn't the case at all, that he had nothing per se against marriage, then added plaintively: "I don't want to be alone. I just want to be left alone."

This distinction eludes a lot of women who tend to be naturally gregarious and are therefore baffled and frequently irritated by men who aren't.

My wife has an absolutely uncanny facility for bursting into my sanctum during the final 30 seconds of a close football game or the bottom of the ninth inning of a crucial baseball game I'm watching on TV. She will plant her feet and announce firmly: "There are some things we need to talk over."

That leaves me three options. I can turn off the game, which is not acceptable. I can pretend to listen to her while covertly watching the game, which usually results in delivering some obviously wrong answers and irritates the hell out of her. Or I can explain that the game is almost over, that this moment is crucial, and can we delay the conversation briefly.

At which point, she says, "I know how long it takes to play the last 30 seconds of a football game"--a sage observation based on experience--and stalks out of the room to resolve the crisis unilaterally.

Presumably that crisis might involve an impending divorce or the dog being eaten by our neighborhood opossum or a just-launched nuclear attack, but the odds of that are long, and I think I would detect such an imperative note in her voice. She is much more likely to be referring to a conflict in social engagements three weeks hence or who is going to pick up my stepson at one of his myriad extracurricular activities.

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