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The Truth, Mainly - 03/09/1998

Photographic evidence of Poor Old Booger Brain Shrinkage?

It's Sunday morning and my wife and I are divvying up the newspaper. I get the sports pages and the wedding section. She gets the rest.

I used to pretend that the wedding section just got stuck somehow to the sports pages. I didn't want anyone to see me reading about weddings. When my wife would catch me, I'd say I was just checking to see which of my students had married since Friday—so I could call them by their new names on Monday.

But this time she notices I merely glance at the new weddings page. She also notices that I study intently the Golden Wedding writeups and photos.

Especially the photos.

"You spend more time on the Golden Weddings than you do on the box scores," she tells me. "Did you know that?"

It's a serious charge. I squirm and cross my legs.

"Maybe I know some of these people," I say.

"Like who?" she says. "Who do you know?"

I don't know any of them.

"Every once in a while," I say, "I'll know someone."

"Well, you've been looking at the page for 15 minutes now," she says, "and you don't know any of them. What's going on?"

What's going on is that I'm mesmerized by those side-by-side photos—the newlyweds labeled "1948" and the old folks labeled "Today."

The wives are almost always recognizable as the same person in both pictures. But the Today husbands rarely look anything like the 1948 men. They wear the startled expressions of victims of bad jokes—as though they'd been lured out on a fire escape, then had a trap door open under them.

The Today wives smile pleasantly, almost triumphantly—as though they think maybe the fire escape joke is pretty funny.

I make up little family biographies that account for the differences in appearance: one guy's wife is mistaken for his daughter—even after he corrects the mistake; another guy's wife keeps reminding him of the time he set fire to the house trying to solder some copper plumbing; another guy has just been told by NASA that he's too washed up to go into space, but would his wife be interested?

"Have you noticed, m'love," I ask my wife, "how much harder marriage is on men than on women?"

She looks up from Molly Ivins.

"That's your contribution to Women's History Month?" she says.

"Check out the photographic evidence," I say. "Look at the 1948 guy: tall, straight, proud, certain the world is his oyster. Look at him today: bent, wild-eyed, bald, befuddled, grimacing the kind of grimace a man grimaces when his wife tells him to smile, dammit, or the picture will make the grandkids cry."

"It's not that bad," she says. "The poor old boogers just look confused and frightened, the way they might look if they were, say, falling through a trap door on a fire escape."

The Truth, Mainly


"And notice the wives," I say. "Tight little tentative smiles in 1948, suppressed guffaws today. Wouldn't you say that's evidence?"

"Last time I saw a woman with a suppressed guffaw like that," she says, "was right after she got her husband housebroken. Last time I saw a man looking so distressed was when he was told if he didn't raise the seat before he used the toilet, he'd wake up one morning with a porcelain necklace. So no, I don't see the pictures as evidence that marriage is harder on men than on women."

"Then what is it?" I say. "Why do the women look so calm, the men so panicky?"

"Read this," she says, pulling a newspaper clipping out of her knitting.

It's from the Feb. 13 New York Times and the headline says "Men's Brains Shrink Faster than Women's." It's about research published last month in The Archives of Neurology, and it says that as we age, our brains shrink and cerebrospinal fluid fills up the empty spaces in our heads. The kicker: "Around the cortex, older men show an average 32 percent increase in cerebrospinal fluid. Older women show a 1 percent increase in fluid."

"Poor Old Booger Brain-Shrink Syndrome," she says. "That's what it is."

"But," I say, "Dr. Edward Coffey says men may be better able to tolerate brain shrinkage without showing the effects."

"Maybe," she says, "or maybe Dr. Coffey is old enough that his brain has shrunk too, resulting in a Faulty Hypothesis. My plump-brained counter-hypothesis is that Poor Old Booger Brain-Shrink Syndrome is why poor old boogers look panicky and their wives don't."

"Whatever," I say. "Means nothing to me. I'm not a poor old booger."

"Don't count on it," she says. "Says here that sometimes brain shrinkage starts as early as 65. You're only 64, but you've always been precocious."

I shake my head vigorously. It makes a sloshing sound.

"You look like you're falling through a trap door on a fire escape," she says. "Let me get the camera."


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.


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