I am driving. Not as I write this – I’m not quite at that level of proficiency just yet, where I can stare down at a glowing screen in my lap while careering across lanes at 105kph. In fact, I’m not even at the stage where I can confidently pick my nose when at traffic lights. I am still at the stage of the death grip on the wheel, hands locked at ten and two and nothing else will do, eyes peeled open to a degree that would make Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange wince a little. But yes, I am generally driving, and after two decades of only using public transport and the kindness of friends, family and my long suffering wife/chaffeur, I am now an independent road user.
Things have changed out there; the last time I drove it was in a Nissan Sunny, and it was so long ago that the salesman pointed out that it had ‘electric windows’ as though he was telling us it could fly. Fly, it could not. The car was a sluggish lump of ugly metal, and the few journeys I made in it felt like I was leading a platoon of Soviet tanks into the badlands of Afghanistan. Cars today are remarkable – even my sexless Fluence drives like a hovercar from 2525 in comparison to that so-called Sunny.
Using the bus is a distant, troubling memory. It seems like a long time since I had to join the human centipede that is public transport, surrounded by the sniffling masses, listening to the tinny din of those people who don’t know about headphones and instead choose to play their music on a phone’s miniscule speakers. A lifetime on the buses and trains taught me that hell isn’t other people – it’s being trapped with other people. I quite like the human race, even with their headcolds and lack of headphones, but I like them a lot more now that I am not trapped in a metal tube with them for an hour a day.
But one thing has jumped out at me from my few months on the road: Leaner and new drivers are not the menace I thought they were, but fully qualified men of a certain age, usually mine, are. When I see someone aggressively cutting across lanes in a tunnel, running a red light, or just being casually obnoxious, it is almost always a guy like me behind the wheel. Is life this short that we have to nuzzle up against the rear bumper of the person in front like an aroused canine, or just beep at everyone over everything? What is it with blokes in cars? In fact, what is it with blokes in general?
On Saturday I was in the game shop with my son. A man in his fifties came in to buy some games. The girl behind the counter told him that since he had spent more than seventy euro, he could have a free T-shirt. Any T-shirt, he asked? Any T-shirt, she said. Can I have that one? he asked, pointing at her T-shirt. She made some flippant comment to brush it off, he got his stuff and left. I felt a mix of emotions – pity for the man, who was so tone deaf that he didn’t realise that what he said wasn’t flirty, or funny, or anything other than unsettling; embarrassment for the staff member, even though she seemed wearily used to this sort of ‘top bants’; and a general sense of shame over being a bloke.
I tend to drop kick all these aspects of men into the same cauldron of oedipal horrors – the aggressive driving, the creepiness, the inability to read the room. How did we get here? We spent so long styling ourselves as some sort of apex predator that we sacrificed essential components of our own humanity. We have devalued ourselves in this process. Look at jobs where nurturing is required: What percentage of creches staff are male? If you advertised for an au pair and a man showed up, would you call the cops right away or wait until he was gone? We just can’t seem to free ourselves from this predatory status, even though we have devalued our role as carers. Look at the concept of the stay at home dad – why isn’t that more common (apart from the limits of the glass ceiling, which is really more like a Temple of Doom-style descending stone roof with spikes in it)?
The horror stories emerging about rich and powerful men and how they treated women have led me to conduct a rather grim internal audit of my relationships. Overall, it’s been pretty bleak. I can give you a few weak reasons for this – growing up in a viciously Catholic Ireland, or just the magic porridge pot of emotional problems that is being adopted, but while there are reasons, there are no excuses. I just treated people poorly, and especially women. I try to be a better person, but it’s hard to tell if I’m a decent human being or just better than I was. This change can’t happen fast enough: I worry about my sons and the sort of men they will become. I just don’t want them to have my problems, my hangups. They may have the advantage of growing up in a more enlightened time, but they also have a father who is trying hard to overcome a cultural hangover. Hopefully by the time they reach manhood, those self-driving cars we keep hearing about will offer them some moments of quiet contemplation on the commute home to think about how to improve their relationships with the opposite sex. Or they may just use the time to give their noses a really good pick.