Man and the Lad Mag

Today’s man has some very real problems, and the magazines he’s reading may be a big reason why.

Lately my wife has taken to asking me if I think I’m going to have a mid-life crisis. I’m not sure why. First, I’m too young—only 32—and it’s tough to claim burnout when you’ve just finished a year of teaching and have almost four months of no particular responsibilities stretching out in front of you.

It could be because of the fish. I’ve taken to shopping for, then preparing fresh fish for dinner, which strikes her as unusual, probably because neither of us ever ‘cooks.’ We really do more ‘preparing’ than ‘cooking.’ Fish has always seemed such an unlikely thing to cook in one’s home—dangerous even, since improper handling could lead to the invasion of stomach crippling bacteria. Living dangerously, I sparked up our indoor grill (an outstanding wedding gift that should be on all registries, by the way) and prepared salmon fillets with a coarse mustard/lemon marinade and served it with boiled red potatoes and a mixed-greens salad. My wife was more suspicious than grateful for this special repast, and eyed each piece on her fork, looking for the telltale translucence of underdoneness before delicately chewing and quickly swallowing.

The next time was catfish fillets in Cajun batter. She begged off altogether, ‘not in the mood’ for fish she said. So I had hers for lunch the next day. It was delicious. I’ve since taken to Cajun battering just about everything, and once I find something that it doesn’t improve, I’ll let everyone know. The next step is sole, but first, I have to ask my mom how to ‘poach’ something.

Despite this evidence, I am not heading for a mid-life crisis. For one thing, I don’t have enough money to finance one. For another, I wouldn’t be caught dead doing something so horribly cliché.

As cliché as the mid-life crisis may be, it remains real, documented daily in the searching looks of men in hotel bars. In fact, in recent years it has even begun to acquire society’s sanction.

Previously, the mid-life crisiser with his fake tan and his hair plugs was pitied. He could not pull off the Miami-Vice-era Don Johnson look because his gut bulged beneath the pastel sport shirts, his body hair crept up his knuckles, and there always was that unfortunate glandular problem. He was a clown—comic relief at best, or tragedy at worst—as we followed him back to his efficiency apartment, the putative bachelor pad rented after deserting the wife and kids. We laughed at the man who imagined that black light was still cool. We shook our heads and tsk-tsked as he sat in front of the television, shirtless, fat and hairy, and shoveled microwaved turkey dinner into his face. So sad. The world had passed him by. His wife gets remarried to someone better looking, someone with a higher income. On weekends, he sees his children, who now seem to delight in calling this other man ‘Dad.’ He buys them ice cream and they sit silently through movies none of them really want to see. A cautionary tale for sure.

Today, though, it seems as though the tide is turning toward an embracing of the mid-life crisis. We see it in the rise of McMansions, or the increasing market for male cosmetics, or the speed with which new electronic ‘toys’ are rushed to market to satiate the demand for distraction. Even the pre-prepared meal, the symbolic food of tragically fallen mid-life-crisis man that previously symbolized desperation and loneliness has now become a virtual life necessity. That mixed-greens salad I served with the marinated grilled salmon came in a bag, which I simply opened and dumped in a bowl. This particular salad did not come with its own packet of dressing, but many do. It is not an exaggeration to say that I could not have served it otherwise. I’m not even entirely sure what was in it, though I suspect dandelions and maybe crabgrass and jimson weed.

We also see the sanctioning of the mid-life crisis in the nearly instant rise of magazines like Maxim and Stuff that seek to move the mid-life crisis forward, into one’s early twenties, and make it a lifestyle all its own. There is a significant change in tone in these magazines as distinguished from their smoking-jacket-clad older brother, Playboy. Playboy is now almost culturally irrelevant, reduced to celebrity stunt nudity and producing low-rated reality TV shows—but at one time, Playboy represented the lifestyle the young, American male ‘wanted.’ It was aspirational, it was fantasy—about as likely as a summer with P. Diddy and James Lipton as Hamptons neighbors—and few of its readers confused what was in the pages of the magazine with what was available to them in their everyday lives. The joke about actually reading the articles in Playboy hit closer to home than most realized, because amongst the nudity and the unfunny cartoons that always seemed to show some guy with a tented-bed-sheet erection, the magazine actually contained ideas, substance that seemed incongruous with the naked women. Men who like to look at breasts don’t also read books and follow politics, do they? That seemed impossible, so rather than worry about trying to become a true, Playboy man, a well-read raconteur who could make Barbi Benton titter with laughter at a grotto party, and later please her every way but Sunday in the boudoir, we just snuck the magazine into the bathroom, told mom to leave us alone and thought intensely about the Playboy women.

Maxim, on the other hand, represents the lifestyle that the young, American male ‘needs,’ and it has accomplished this by very cleverly splicing Playboy with Cosmopolitan. Men have not-so-secretly been reading Cosmopolitan for years, enjoying the pictures of the hot women and studying the articles that seemed to unlock the mystery that is their girlfriend. In Maxim, unlike Playboy, breasts are covered—but they are frequently attached to semi-famous people, and while Playboy traded on showing the ‘girl next door,’ Maxim shows us ‘the girl on that WB show’ who is not next door, but actually in your house at least once a week.

David Itzkoff wrote in a recent lukewarm apologia (published in the New York Press) covering his days as an editor at Maxim, that one of the hallmarks of the magazine is that it ‘has no ideology.’ He is right in that there are no ideas contained in the magazine, but this doesn’t mean it has no ideology. Maxim has successfully replaced ideas, which are usually slippery, with things and demonstrated that in the presence of things, ideas become positively quaint.

Whereas Cosmopolitan focuses on things like men, cosmetics, or cellulite, Maxim is primarily an orgy of women and high electronics, and these articles are done in such a way as to point out the necessity of having the new thing because the old thing is inferior. How can you settle for PlayStation when Xbox can render so many billions more polygons per second? Are you telling me that you are not yet watching Monday Night Football on high definition television? Have you not been told that the picture is so crisp, so clear, that you can actually see Brett Favre’s pores?

The Playboy lifestyle implies that one must have that certain savoir faire that allows one to pull off wearing pajamas without looking like perverted uncle Raymond. The Maxim man likes women, beer, and video games. Someday, he’d like to get married, but grudgingly, you know? As seen in a recent Maxim article on marriage subtitled ‘Meet the New Boss,’ Maxim recognizes that we will need to be subservient to the wife, otherwise we will not have a steady supply of sex, which is the only reason to get married in the first place. The Maxim man is supposed to be us. In the end, however, a Maxim lifestyle requires only money. And really, it doesn’t even require money, exactly, as credit will do just as well.

With consumer confidence now being the single most important measure of the country’s economic health, it’s not surprising that a magazine like Maxim is so popular, as it imbues the reader with the sense of possibility. The only thing we’re missing to complete the picture is the ‘stuff.’ Confidence is therefore tied to how likely we are to buy something big, expensive and unnecessary (one of the de rigueur acts of the mid-life crisis).

Of course, Maxim is filled with women we’ll never date, and toys most of us will never own, nor need really, as the $1,600 Global Positioning System isn’t necessary to locate the closest sports bar, but oh, we want this stuff, we do, we do, and these slick pages are closer than we’ve ever come to having it before.

Ultimately, I wonder even about the damage Maxim and its ilk will wreak on future generations of boys as they finally, after desperate months of kissing and rubbing mauling hands over fully-clothed chests, succeed in pawing their girlfriend’s bras free and learn the reality of ‘breasts’—frequently uneven, sometimes funny-shaped, and beholden to gravity—when they have previously, in the pages of these magazines, been exposed only to ‘boobs’—plastic-surgery round, taut as timpani drums and always, always at high salute.

For safety’s sake, perhaps all issues of Maxim should be bundled with National Geographic.


TMN contributing writer John Warner’s first novel, The Funny Man was recently published by Soho Press. He teaches at the College of Charleston and is co-color commentator for The Morning News Tournament of Books. More by John Warner