A decade before writing his just released book, ”So What Are the Guys Doing?” David Figura was a guy doing a lot of lamenting. A journalist in Syracuse, N.Y., Figura was approaching midlife as a burned-out workaholic with no friends to speak of and a marriage on the rocks.
Then at church one Sunday, Figura’s minister recited an oft-repeated saying:
“You cannot keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” He went home, took out a notecard and wrote, “It won’t happen unless I do it,” and stuck the note on his bathroom mirror.
He also started having brave conversations with himself (by journaling), with his wife (through marriage therapy) and with about 50 other middle-aged men (via in-depth interviews) and found his angst wasn’t unique. Many men were sad, lonely and unfulfilled and had no idea whom to talk to.
“It’s really sad when your best and only friend is your wife and you’re having marital problems,” Figura said. “That’s where I was.”
Now 62, Figura’s marriage is solid. His two children are grown. He has lots of male friends and a job he loves, despite a significant pay cut.
Figura, who will be in the Twin Cities this weekend for a book event, talked about the importance of friendship, the pressure to make money and the midlife affair.
Q: Your book encourages men, particularly in midlife, to make changes and take risks to be happier. Why are so many men reluctant to do that?
A: Maybe it’s the economic pressures. Guys still have this thing that being the wage earner has to be the priority. One of the questions I asked was, “What’s your greatest fear as a middle-aged guy?” One guy said, “I’m 55 and I hate what I do and I can’t see retiring for another 10 years and my greatest fear is that something will come along that I really should take that will make me happier even if it’s less money.” Hearing those comments, I realized I wasn’t alone. Three weeks later, I left my job as an editor and took a job as the outdoors writer for a $10,000 pay cut. I love it. Now my only lament is fighting the battle of the gut.
Q: But meaningful work is only part of the equation. You’re adamant that men get out there and make some guy friends. Why is that?
A: Guys say, “I don’t have time for friends” or, “That’s a women’s thing.” But that lack of balance is a real source of unhappiness among guys. Women need to encourage their guys to take time off to join groups or create them. When I decided to form a low-stakes poker night, I approached 25 guys before I got four who would sit down with me one night a week. Good friends make for a good life. You’ve got to act on that.
Q: Where did you find the 50 guys to interview?
A: First, I interviewed people close to me, family members and friends. Being a newspaper guy, you know tons of people. Hey, I’m going to interview a car mechanic. I know a lawyer …
Q: What’s one of the questions you asked them?
A: “What would you like to do with guys that you’re not doing now?” One guy said, “I’d like go out during the summer and throw horseshoes each week and, afterward, go out for a few beers.” I encouraged him to form the group, which I joined. We’ve been going strong ever since and now have 12 members.
Q: I’m guessing that talking about horseshoes was easier for your wife to stomach than your candid writing about your almost affair.
A: I was sensing a growing lack of respect from my wife. Then someone from my past Googled my name. We started three, four, five months of e-mails and text messages. There were some pretty suggestive things that happened, but I didn’t act upon them. This woman just flattered the hell out of me, said I was the greatest guy. It was exciting.
Q: What stopped you?
A: At the last minute I said, “I can’t do this.” It’s like, I just love my wife so much. I couldn’t do that to her or my kids. We went to marriage therapy and it worked. Writing about it, being open about it, was something that happens in a lot of marriages. It’s in our rearview mirror now.
Q: How have women responded to the book?
A: Some of my biggest supporters have been women. I wrote the book for men and women alike, to raise the discussion about what men during midlife are doing or, in many cases, not doing, and how it affects their happiness and relationships. I spoke to 43 groups last year, and three-fourths of the women attending were nodding their heads.
Q: You’ve said that women handle midlife and the retirement years better than men do. Why?
A: How many times do you hear a couple who are retired say, “My wife needs a hobby”? Women understand the importance of having same-sex friends, and making time for activities with them on a regular basis, apart from their husbands and kids.
Q: Do you see men making changes after reading your book?
A: Four close friends who have read the book have changed jobs. My promise to almost any guy who reads this book is you’ll stop and say, “Oh, my gosh, that guy is me.”