Macho is stupid at any age, but when you're older, it can be downright lethal. Why the difference? Two reasons. First, older men are usually no longer able--if they ever were--to play tough. And, second, instead of attracting respect, older people tend to be looked on these days as marks by youthful aggressors.
At no stage in life is Falstaff's "discretion is the better part of valour" more appropriate than in our later years.
That point was hammered home to me when my wife and I attended a theater in New York City last New Year's Eve. We emerged at 11 p.m. on 43rd Street, a block away from Times Square. I had been aware for years of the New Year's Eve revelry there from watching it on television. It always seemed excessive but benign to me.
No longer. As soon as we hit 43rd Street, we were engulfed in people, mostly groups of young men traveling in packs and using the excuse of New Year's exuberance to turn loose the kind of aggression that puts them at risk with the law under normal circumstances.
The police had barricaded all the cross-town streets, and waves of people surged up and down 7th Avenue and Broadway. Although police officers were all around, the crowds were out of control. You could sense that, smell it, taste it, feel it instantly. It's an ugly feeling, as if the thin veneer of civility that keeps us from doing violence to one another daily had momentarily been peeled away, exposing terribly vulnerable surfaces.
I was scared. I tried to hide this from my wife who was clinging tightly to my arm as we headed away from the action as quickly as we could. But the going was slow, partly because of a group of young men who were showing off, running wildly, tackling one another, hurtling about the street.
One of them flew into an upper-middle-aged man who had come from our theater and was walking just ahead of us. He was staggered by the blow and separated for a moment from his woman companion. He looked with burning anger at the youth who had hit him and said something I couldn't hear.
The young man stopped his rollicking and shouldered up to his victim. His friends also stopped and circled us threateningly. Thrusting his face close to the man he had bumped, the youth said: "Whatsamatter, man? You got a problem?"
For an instant, time was suspended. We couldn't pass and had to stand there, transfixed. Then the older man swallowed whatever he was going to say, grabbed his companion by the elbow, and pushed quickly up the street. We followed. The young men watched silently, then went back to their games, shouting derisively at our backs. The moment passed.
As we hurried to safer surroundings, I had some time to think about what I would have done had I been the victim. And I probably would have reacted in much the same way, maybe even taken some action. It would have been stupid, but it would also have been instinctive.
I remember an old Gable-Tracy movie--I think it was "Boom Town"--in which the two principals met on a board placed across a muddy street in a frontier town. Neither would give way, and they both ended up in the mud after fighting for the priority to pass.
That's how American men of my generation were raised: to defend our turf at the risk of our manhood. Although I learned early in life how to circumvent such situations--I was strong and agile and a good athlete, but I had an inordinate distaste for violence--the macho instinct still got me in a fair amount of trouble. But it happened mostly when I had sharp physical responses and the ability to run like hell if that was the only way out.
There were a lot of angry people around then, and there are a lot more today. They drive our freeways, and they walk our streets. Facing them down may do a lot for our macho needs--whatever they are--but it may also be terminal. That's a high price to pay for a misplaced sense of honor.
I know that--and yet I still have to fight my impulses to stand my ground and not let that other guy use the board across the muddy street. When you're older, you not only still have to deal with all those macho needs, but you also have to somehow put down the outrage of disrespect--no, contempt--for older people in large segments of our society. Age is no protection. Indeed, it's often a bull's-eye pinned on a prospective target.
That's why older men and women, particularly men, need to temper their outrage with cool thinking. When that guy cuts you out on the freeway, drop back and let him go. When you're provoked, examine the odds before you respond.
I remember so well during World War II that squadron flight leaders didn't want former airline pilots or flight instructors in combat because they were steeped in caution. They might think twice before jumping the enemy when they were outnumbered or the odds were against them. But the 18- and 19-year-olds, by contrast, went charging in without weighing the consequences. A lot of them didn't come back, but they also took plenty of enemy planes with them.
At 19, you had a chance of coming out alive. At 65, you don't. Maybe those decisions wouldn't be necessary in the best of all possible worlds. But that isn't where we live in 1988. So maybe it's best--both literally and symbolically--to just keep the hell out of Times Square on New Year's Eve.