When I was a teen-ager, most of what I knew about men I learned from three sources: Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker and my Aunt Claire.
From Hemingway I learned that men are brave and fine and good and true. And that two of their main pleasures in life are bullfighting and drinking wine out of goatskins while speaking in terse sentences.
From Parker I learned that women live their lives, mostly, waiting for men: waiting for them to come home or waiting for their TC telephone call or waiting for them to marry them or discard them. And, of course, that men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.
And from my Aunt Claire -- who, by the way, regarded her colorful, upturned eyeglasses as a chic and indispensable accessory -- I learned my most important lesson: to regard all such generalizations with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Her philosophy about gender differences, as I recall, was based on the planetary sciences and went something like this:
"Sure, men and women have different experiences growing up. And different ways of seeing things. But the bottom line is we're all from the same planet. I mean, it's not like we're talking about Martians trying to understand spaced-out Saturnites from another galaxy."
(Note to reader: All quotes from my Aunt Claire are approximate in terms of their scientific accuracy.)
It was far from perfect, of course, her analysis of how we might approach the cultural differences between the sexes. For one thing, it left out a lot of the collective complaints voiced on both sides.
But her advice worked if you applied it the way she intended it to be applied: one-on-one.
See, she thought men and women ought to approach each other on an individual basis and not as members of alien groups from warring planets.
Of course, my Aunt Claire, or to be precise, my late Aunt Claire, lived in a time -- long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away -- when no one had ever heard of such Wild Men and New Women as Robert Bly or Camille Paglia. It was a time when academics stayed in their ivory towers and didn't show up on TV talk shows ranting about the unbearable oddness of the opposite sex.
What, I sometimes wonder, would she have made of the insight from the drumming, chanting Mr. Bly that "The true radiant energy in the male resides in the magnetic field of the deep masculine."
Or of this deep thought from Ms. Paglia: "Male urination really is a kind of accomplishment, an arc of transcendence. A woman merely waters the ground she stands on."
Actually, I think I know what Aunt Claire might say. That just as with Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker, one should regard such generalizations with a healthy dose of skepticism.
If, that is, you even understand what the heck they mean.
Question: Am I wrong in thinking that a lot of the polemical, academic, take-no-prisoners approach to the man-woman question has shed more heat than light? And shrunk the zone in which both sexes are able to find similarities they can identify with?
Many women, for instance, have a hard time identifying with men who go on retreats where they make spears, chant, dance in a conga line and frequently say "Ho."
It is a kind of behavior that some of us find alienating in its strangeness. And it has the effect of obscuring the gender-free human traits shared by both men and women. Imagining a group of men on such a retreat, I find myself thinking of it in terms of a science fiction movie:
Men. Who are they? Where do they come from? What do they want? Coming soon to a theater near you: Night of the Living Alien Guys from Outer Space.
To be fair, I suspect many men feel this way -- feel this sense of encountering a new form of life -- about certain radical forms of feminism.
No wonder that the market is exploding with books and courses that explain -- or attempt to explain -- the sexes to one another. Books that tell us how to talk to one another, how to listen to one another, how to fight with one another, how to have sex with one another.
Still, the gulf between us seems to be widening.
We are cast in the current debate as opposites, fixed figures moving at different speeds -- men faster, women slower -- on parallel lines. Which, as you know, never meet.
Of course, if my Aunt Claire were around, I think I know what she might say: "So what's with the parallel lines? The bottom line is we're all from the same planet."