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  (Curtis Lantinga)

 

(Curtis Lantinga)

MARGARET WENTE

What happened to the man I married? Add to ...

The other day, my husband and I started talking about a winter vacation. Florida? Arizona? We weren’t sure. It’s hard to plan vacations with him. He doesn’t like to take a lot of time off (he works on contract) because he secretly thinks he might never find employment again.

“You know,” I said after the third glass of wine, “I’ve always wanted to go to Africa.”

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“So let’s go to Africa,” he said.

I nearly choked. Africa is expensive and far away. My husband has always been the frugal type, and he knows I don’t do pup tents.

“We can’t afford it,” I said. “Besides, you’d have to take a lot of time off.”

“So what?” he said. And before I could stop him, he booked a trip to Africa.

What’s happened to the man I married? I scarcely recognize him any more. That man was extremely prudent about money, even cheap. He was indifferent to the finer things in life. He had a brown corduroy-covered couch that had been shredded by the cat, and he couldn’t understand why we needed a new one. He drove a beat-up car and dressed in worn-out jeans from Mark’s. He threw his dollars around like bricks.

“What’s come over you?” I asked. I was afraid he might be suffering from some early form of age-related brain damage.

“What’s come over me is that I’ve turned 65,” he said. “I figure, if not now, then when?” That shut me up. I realized that if we want to go traipsing after wildebeest herds, we probably shouldn’t wait until we’re 90.

One of the compensations for getting old is that you can stop putting off the things you always meant to do but never got around to because you didn’t have the time or money (or both, usually).

Another compensation is that your spouse may have changed – for the better. I think this holds especially true for men. They aren’t so stressed out. They’re less preoccupied with work. The rough edges have been sanded down. They’ve proved themselves and don’t have to compete so fiercely any more. They become more generous, agreeable and easygoing. They turn into nicer people.

My husband enjoys it now when we buy new couches. He enjoys most things more than he used to, especially the office. The people he works with are half his age. He gives them sage advice, and they show him how to download TV shows from the Internet. They’re amazed at how smoothly he resolves problems and handles conflict. He’s amazed at their energy and drive. At night, he comes home happy. I tell him that if he ever goes into management again, I’ll kill him.

He wasn’t always such a mellow guy. He used to be testy and aggressive. Sometimes he’d have gigantic fights at work and stomp home in a funk. Sometimes doors would slam, and I would wonder why I’d married such an obnoxious jerk. (He was probably wondering the same thing about me.) But those days are past. Nothing flaps him any more. He greets the world with equanimity. “I liked to think I was mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” he says. “Now, my motto is, ‘Born to be mild.’ ”

His appearance has changed, too. He used to be a skinny guy with a black mustache and wild, unruly hair. He bore a close resemblance to Frank Zappa. Now he looks more like the Happy Buddha. His hair is shaved, leaving just a hint of silver. When he puts on a suit and tie (once or twice a year, under duress), he looks – to my astonishment – distinguished. To my mind, he’s more handsome than ever.

Sometimes I wonder what I look like to him. But I don’t worry about it, because I’m pretty sure he likes me the way I am. Whenever I ask him, “Does this make me look fat?”, he answers, “No. You look great.” This is one of the Top 10 Tips for a happy marriage, and we’ve mastered most of them.

Funnily enough, people get happier as they get older. Many marriages do, too. You stop fighting over kids and money. Women stop trying to perfect their husbands, which relieves a lot of pressure on both parties. Also, women stop trying to perfect themselves. We’re not so interested in looking young. We’re just happy if we function.

The happiest period of most people’s lives (according to the happiness experts) is around retirement age – good news for the giant wave of baby boomers, who are crashing on those shores en masse whether they like it or not. Surprisingly, 70-year-olds are much happier than 30-year-olds. I’d never have believed it when I was young, but now I know it’s true. Most of my sixtysomething friends have more enjoyment and meaning in their lives than ever.

Maybe it’s because the mortgage is paid off and the kids are launched. Or maybe it’s because they’ve stopped worrying about their careers and going to stupid parties in order to network with people they don’t care about. They can remain passionate about their work while regarding the work place with amused detachment. I can’t begin to tell you how refreshing this is.

My husband and I used to contemplate our seventh decade with anxiety and dread. But now that we’ve arrived, it’s not so bad. Of course there are a few things I’d like to change. I’d like to throw his frayed old jeans in the garbage and get him to dress like a grown-up for a change.

Sadly, there is zero possibility of that. But it really doesn’t matter. I’m going to Africa with a version of the man I married, and what could be better than that?

 

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