Monday, October 09, 2006

The Unwritten, Unspoken Covenant of Men

Men are competitive. It is in our nature. Millions of years of evolution and blatantly subtle choices of women have forged our innate behaviors. Though we don’t normally wield axes and shields, or bash up our adversaries in a “fight to the finish”, we do naturally desire to triumph. It is in our nature to be assertive and at times actively aggressive. We inherently despise backstabbing, shun “hits below the belt” and detest personal obloquies that spill over to un-involved near and dear ones.

“Passive aggressive” seems to not be our mantra. We tend to associate that with the “gentler” sex and pusillanimous members of our gender. We’d rather “duke it out” than carry on giving cold shoulders; none of the not-talking or gratuitous innuendoes or just making things blatantly difficult (e.g. obstructing the TV while we’re trying to watch the all important game or maybe that episode of fear factor when the people have to gorge on the hideous African hissing cockroaches).

Great men and women across the ages have tried to harness this basic drive. Kautilya, Sun Tzu and Machiavelli went to great lengths to extol the virtues of patient, meditated, undetectable and swift use of this innate impulse. Modern men understand these principles and appreciate the rule of law. We also understand that we aren’t competing all the time and with everyone. We’ve decided to replace axes and swords with racquets, cleats, cars, yachts, horses and fiscal success. Oh and sometimes women as well (femi-Nazists here’s your cue: flame on).

Through our trials and battles in the game of life, we’ve come to appreciate and acknowledge a fellow male’s efforts and achievements. The novices idolize the experienced and established for guidance and inspiration. The accomplished cherish the energy and drive of the fledglings and often take fatherly pride in coaching their protégés. Compatriots derive inspiration and motivation from each other and respect their adversary’s achievements.

Approbation and respect come sometimes as blatant imitation (the best form of flattery) and sometimes as a curt “well done”. Often, it is a silent nod, a smile or a gesture in passing. While the gentler sex sometimes tends to mistake this behavior as withdrawn and uncommunicative, to us, it speaks tomes and, sometimes, means the world.

The other day, as I was driving home from work on one of the last sunny and gentle days of the waning summer, I noticed in my rear view mirror a striking mass of gray metal. The fact that got my attention was not that the gray was very nearly the color of my vehicle; nor was it the similar low profile of the car, nor the congruent open top; it was the new Saturn Sky and it was shaped much better than I had imagined. I had seen pictures of it and read comparisons with the Miata and the Solstice. But seeing it bring up the rear at upwards of 80 mph was a very different experience.

Naturally, I slowed a shade to have it be parallel to me. I “opened hailing frequencies” (Star Trek: Next Gen reference, for the uninitiated) by flashing my hazard lights once and the Sky acknowledged by promptly shifting to the left lane. The driver probably saw me looking at the mirror and almost expected such a reaction. As the Sky pulled up, I saw at the helm a slim, distinguished-looking spectacled gentleman. His whitening hair belied his middle-age and added character to his successful appearance.

As we drove parallel and scoped the other’s car, I smiled and signaled a salute. Coming from an “ethnic” person about half his age, it probably surprised him. Nevertheless, the response was a smile, an appreciative nod and a thumbs-up. The next second, I veered right to take the by-pass as he veered left to take the fork. Not a word said, yet a world communicated. No identities exchanged, yet personalities established. The unspoken, unwritten covenant of Men.