Not the Man I Used to Be

 Illustration by Zohar Lazar

Maybe it's less a chemical problem than an existential one. Maybe I'm tired. Maybe you can get what you thought you wanted only so many times before it loses its allure.

From age 18 on, my official policy regarding sex was: Yes. All my decisions in this area were governed by the deprived 14-year-old within, to whom the concept that any woman would willingly get naked in his presence was still literally incredible, too good to be true, a once-in-a-lifetime chance like getting sent into space or accidentally being elected president. Even after I'd amassed enough regrettable experience — doomed affairs and heartbreak, nonconsensual cohabitation, a lot of awkward small talk — to know that some women were better avoided, this adolescent maniac still dictated my actions. Passing up any sexual possibility still felt insane, like crawling past an oasis in the desert in search of a better one.

I'm now 48, and sexual opportunities still occasionally present themselves. And yet in recent years, to my 14-year-old self 's astonishment and disgust, I sometimes find I just can't be bothered. Last year I received a text from a woman in Virginia inviting me to come down for the weekend, accompanied by persuasive visual allurements. I checked the Amtrak schedules and learned that, incredibly, it would take eight hours, including an unavoidable five-hour layover in D.C. I decided: Forget it. No sex is worth an afternoon in Union Station. Now, of course, I regret it.

My male friends and I — gentle, friendly, bookish cartoonists, coders, and physicists — sometimes reminisce about being 18 and driving a thousand miles for a night with a girl, or picking fights we had no business picking. "You guys?" our girlfriends and wives ask, looking at us, incredulous. Yes, even us.

Our weird mix of mortification and nostalgia is hard to explain. It's not the libido or aggression that we miss so much as the invincible boneheaded confidence of youth. "Everyone else was an idiot," my friend Nick remembers. "I was going to explain it all to them." We were as yet un­smushed by life and still figured we had as good a shot as the next guy at everything: every girl, any fight, fame, success, conquering the world. We kind of miss those guys.

It would be shortsighted to dismiss testosterone as fuel for nothing more useful than one-night stands and bar fights. Much of human history was written in testosterone. And while it does enable us to march, en masse, Over There and kill those Other Guys, and plunder their women, and take all their stuff, it also makes men undertake such pointless and hubristic projects as building the Tower of Babel and the Pharos of Alexandria, the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building — erecting all those colossal limestone and iron phalluses, waggling them at the face of God. Or for that matter, exterminating polio, stamping all over the face of the moon, and prying open the intricate mystery of the genome — unveiling and defiling Mother Nature. You could argue that history has all been one long macho drama, played out with cannons and flagpoles and Saturn Vs.

I remember reading, in one of those self-help books they sell in wire racks at highway rest stops, that women often find it a relief when their husband's testosterone begins to ebb in midlife. No more closing down the bars, lipstick on the collar, etc. Their man becomes — after all those years of unruly wildness — domesticated. I read this with a shudder. No one wants to be tamed. In one of the Socratic dialogues, a man is quoted to the effect that being relieved of his libido was like finally being allowed to dismount a wild horse. To me, it seems more like getting kicked off a train in Nebraska.

We experience the ebbing of testosterone not just as a lessening of libido but as a lessening of desire in general, a loss of certitude, of pleasure, and of will. We wonder what the hell ever happened to the old Us. We don't seem to enjoy anything as much as we used to. I'm neither as angry nor as hilarious as I used to be. It's not as if you can gently excise a man's belligerence and lechery and salvage a perfect gentleman. It'd be like extracting Hyde from Jekyll. What remained would be a shrunken, pallid thing, weak and ineffectual.

Time magazine has branded the ebbing of testosterone "manopause." As with all maladies real and invented, there is a chemical solution, in the form of testosterone supplements, currently a multi­billion-dollar business. Although they've been linked to heart attacks and strokes, it seems as if a lot of men's informed risk assessment is: Screw it. I myself still prefer more traditional remedies. These, unfortunately, are not without their own side effects: Dating girls in their twenties, for instance, is like dating escaped mental patients; my moderation in alcohol is now enforced by draconian hangovers; and sports cars are boring. Whenever I see a gray-haired dude in a convertible the color of Peter Pan's booties, I always think: "Sir, you embarrass us both."

Maybe it's less a chemical problem than an existential one. Maybe I'm just tired. Maybe I've had enough. Maybe you can get what you thought you wanted only so many times before it loses its allure. There's a lag time — sometimes of years — between changing and noticing that you've changed. At some point you realize there's a difference between what you want to want and what you actually want. In my thirties, it took me about 300 trials to re­alize that I didn't like smoking marijuana — that it always, 100 percent of the time, made me nervous and sad. And it's taken me the better part of a decade to notice that I don't always want to have sex or have another round, that sometimes I would rather stay home watching a movie with the cat on my lap.

Let's not confuse this with wisdom, let alone virtue. Some of it may be the cumulative effect of experience: Sex has come, through long Pavlovian conditioning, to be associated with regret, so that now I'm already imagining the breakup talk before we've gotten to the first kiss. Mostly it's just that the cost-benefit calculus has changed: My dread of hangovers and small talk outweighs my anticipation of the buzz and the fucking. I guess it's a relief, not feeling hormonally compelled to ride the train all day to slap nakedly with some stranger. But what I did instead of taking the train to Virginia that weekend was to sit on the couch, eating leftover taco meat right out of the frying pan and talking on the phone to my friend Harold, who had dozed off in his recliner while watching Body Heat, with a plate of uneaten salami on his stomach. It's not as if we've traded the shallow pleasures of the flesh for the consolations of philosophy.

"Maybe," a female friend suggested to me, I'm sure in the least judgmental tone she could manage, "this stage of life has different pleasures to offer." What are those, exactly? Catching up on all that Dostoyevsky that was too boring to get through when I was 20? Golf? I know I'm supposed to accept the ebbing of testosterone as inevitable, even welcome, and that I shouldn't want to trade my hard-won wisdom for the impulsive passions of youth. But the truth is, what little I've learned in this life has occasioned me mostly melancholy and regret: I've learned that love is a lure and an illusion; that success brings no real satisfaction; that we ultimately lose whatever wisdom we've managed to acquire and end up incoherent, incontinent, and alone. I would gratefully trade these unwelcome insights to have my hands free of arthritis again, to have Koren or Bianca or Zoey back in bed for one night or two, or to get to sit around with all my friends, including those now deceased, in the back room at Cox's Pub for a long afternoon, cracking each other up and ordering another round of shots and singing the Faces' "Ooh La La": "I wish that I knew what I know now/When I was younger. . . ."

Let me channel, for a moment, my own younger, more irascible self, still alive in there somewhere. It's bad enough that we're forced to endure our own lessening and dissolution; having to affect some cloying boosterism about it only makes it more insufferable. I find it a bracing consolation to admit that this aging is bullshit, a big rip-off, simply The Worst. I, for one, protest it. I'm a rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light kind of guy. But what if it's the rage that's dying?

It turns out that the loss of testosterone may not be natural or inevitable. One study suggests that it occurs only as a function of a general decline in health — that is, men who remain healthy and active don't experience it. At the end of a dark, frigid winter spent eating potato chips and watching Netflix in bed, I finally bought a new bike, started working outside in the sun, and at some point realized I'd stopped saying "Shit — this again" when I woke up every morning. Maybe I hadn't been declining; maybe I was just depressed. I found myself cracking my friends up over beers again, taking stupid risks in Manhattan traffic, and, for the first time in years, euphorically giddy over a woman who is guaranteed to break my heart. To quote my favorite triumph-of-the-human-spirit film: I was cured, all right.

This is probably only a temporary reprieve. But who's to say? When a female friend told me about taking an old, blind man for a walk who started stroking her arm in what she interpreted as an inappropriate way, she was outraged by his taking advantage of an act of charity. But I found myself secretly rooting for the guy. Where she saw male entitlement and aggression, I saw a cheering, indefatigable cluelessness. He was still out there, giving it the old college try! Women have it impressed upon them much earlier in life, and much more bluntly, that they've lost all sexual street value. Whereas I'm sure I will still be deluded, when I am 90, that the hottest candy striper in my assisted-living facility is not just being nice to me, but actually likes me. That I still have a shot.