The Tin Man: A View from 50

Let us gaze in the mirror alongside the subject as he assesses life on the morning he crosses the half-century point. He needs a helpful, objective view. Thank you for helping.

From the top, the hair. He has a full head of hair, and the ratio of follicles that still produce dark-brown versus white interlopers remains 80-to-20 in favor of dark brown. He has a single white hair visible on his right hand, which he has nicknamed “Memento Mori.” There is white in his beard, so he shaves, but white hairs have not yet appeared on his legs.

The ratio of brown to white is such that a friend asked him several years ago which brand and color dye he uses, which shocked and pleased him at the same time because he does not dye his hair. This is because he is proud of his full head of dark hair as if it is a comment on his positive qualities as an individual rather than an accident of genetic inheritance.

The look in the mirror continues. It is not a full-length one, he notes with gratitude, in the knowledge that there is such a thing as too much truth in the morning.

The skin on his face is smooth, but because his only two facial expressions are either a smile or a grimace and little in between, he possesses grooves in his brow (four decades of near-sighted squinting) and two deep folds alongside his mouth that are shaped like parentheses, as if everything he says is an aside or a commentary. There are many creases alongside and under his eyes. He starts to count them. It occurs to him that he requires better lighting at all times.

His face used to be compared to Jeff Goldblum’s (it was a compliment, he eventually realized) but now it has become Richard Belzer’s. Both men have always looked like themselves at every age, so he realizes that he probably has always looked like himself as well.

Six feet tall and quite thin, 130-to-135 pounds thin. He has been, he reflects, thin his entire life; “skinny” was the word used by bullies and “too” was added to that word by some women. “Slender” was the word used by the women who enjoyed his company. Sometimes they would mention Jeff Goldblum.

Twice he tried to do something about his weight, to add to it. Once, he joined a gym, worked out every other day for six months, ate beyond his appetite the other days. Neither an increase in weight nor muscle mass appeared.

This experience cemented in his mind the idea that his body is a model of permanence in our inconstant world, and that it is efficient in its operations. Big meals or no meals, his body remains 135 pounds and remains always in motion.

He recently shared with a female friend this insight about himself. Feel free to place air quotes around the word “insight.” She was urging him to eat more, and he noted with undue pride that his body’s weight remains a constant regardless of his habits. She suggested that this was a dumb thought, which it is.

Any number of psychologists might note here that the individual who thinks of his body as an “it” or “his body” is detached from his own self and has a negative body image. Those psychologists would be correct. Awareness is a big first step, however.

His legs are thin and no longer carry his weight without the aid of a cane, thanks to another accident of genetic inheritance, spinal muscular atrophy. Some years ago he noticed the irony in the fate of an individual who desired a divorce from his body, or at least an amicable separation, a man who did not much enjoy the physical parts of human life, who is now forced to live permanently in a ill-functioning body. What is not ironic is the fact, hard-learned, that life is easier when one embraces one’s body, crazy legs and all. A life lived in embrace of one’s senses is a fuller one.

The other time he addressed his weight he did so without conscious effort. His first good-paying sedentary office job, combined with Iowa food portions and a nightly six-pack (an eight-pack, really) consumed as a hobby resulted in a body that looked like it was pregnant. He started to walk home from the office and changed what alcohol he consumed rather than cease consuming it at all (that came later) and lost the tiny beer belly in weeks.

The above paragraph of course disproves every personal myth about his non-fluctuating weight that he has told himself about himself before and since and then shared recently with his friend. He can neither defend nor explain his personal myths about possessing a self that can not be changed. He can only laugh at this now.

How does one measure the weight of one’s thoughts, anyway? The space between the synapses that hold one thought for decades and the synapses that will learn something new about the same subject may be tiny in one’s brain but a universe apart when one is as reluctant to change as I have been. (The shift to the first-person is a conscious one, which also describes my path through my forties, which concluded yesterday.)

* * * *
Tin is the fiftieth element of the periodic table of elements. Most often employed in alloys such as pewter, it is used a solder to join materials together, and it is also used to protect other metals. Most tin cans are made of steel plated with a layer of tin to prevent oxidation.

Tin is neither loved for its inherent beauty nor valued for its rarity. It is useful, and its usefulness has been known since antiquity. Perhaps this provides an analogy for turning fifty: my age can protect the life within it, and when it is combined with other elements something beautiful can be manufactured. (Or I have turned corny now that I am fifty.)

In literature, L. Frank Baum’s Tin Woodman joins Dorothy, Toto, and the Scarecrow in their journey to the Enchanted City to get help from The Wizard. (The three meet the Cowardly Lion last.) The Tin Woodman needs a heart, like the Scarecrow needs a brain, and Dorothy a way to get home to Kansas. In the first novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Tin Woodman explains how he came to made of tin and without a heart with a Criminal Minds-episode level of coldly gruesome violence:

There was one of the Munchkin girls who was so beautiful that I soon grew to love her with all my heart. She, on her part, promised to marry me as soon as I could earn enough money to build a better house for her; so I set to work harder than ever. But the girl lived with an old woman who did not want her to marry anyone, for she was so lazy she wished the girl to remain with her and do the cooking and the housework. So the old woman went to the Wicked Witch of the East, and promised her two sheep and a cow if she would prevent the marriage. Thereupon the Wicked Witch enchanted my axe, and when I was chopping away at my best one day, for I was anxious to get the new house and my wife as soon as possible, the axe slipped all at once and cut off my left leg.
This at first seemed a great misfortune, for I knew a one-legged man could not do very well as a wood-chopper. So I went to a tinsmith and had him make me a new leg out of tin. The leg worked very well, once I was used to it. But my action angered the Wicked Witch of the East, for she had promised the old woman I should not marry the pretty Munchkin girl. When I began chopping again, my axe slipped and cut off my right leg. Again I went to the tinsmith, and again he made me a leg out of tin.

His story continues, but the details remain the same: the Enchanted Axe continues to de-limb the Tin Woodman, he gets replacement parts made of tin, it chops his head off, he gets a replacement for that, and finally the ax bisects him. His new metal torso does not have a heart. “But, alas! I had now no heart, so that I lost all my love for the Munchkin girl, and did not care whether I married her or not.”

He wants a heart so that he can love again, love the one he once loved, but since his heartless body can not love, he can not have her and he does not care, which breaks his lack of a heart. He wants a heart so that he can care to love again. He wants to want to love again.

Emotional logic may not be logical, but it may be the only perfect logic. The Scarecrow and Tin Woodman have a brief agree-to-disagree dispute over their twin plights: “‘All the same,’ said the Scarecrow [after hearing the Tin Woodman’s tale] ‘I shall ask for brains instead of a heart; for a fool would not know what to do with a heart if he had one.’ ‘I shall take the heart,’ returned the Tin Woodman; ‘for brains do not make one happy, and happiness is the best thing in the world.'”

I shall take the heart, too, Tin Woodman. Losses and even perceived losses in my life have held me in a thrall for too many years. Even the loss of my legs’ functionality at first seemed like something done to me by an evil witch with an Enchanted Axe. With each loss, I replaced a part of myself with a simulacrum simply to get by in life. With each loss, I wanted to protect my heart, to remove my heart, but oh! how I wanted to be loved nonetheless.

That which I most dreaded—abandonment—came again and again as I abandoned whomever I was with first in order to protect my (now absent?) heart. I ran away in order to not experience the feeling of being run away from. Emotional logic may not be logical, but it may be the only perfect logic. It was as if I was my own Enchanted Axe. (If that name is ever used for a body spray, I do not want to know about it.)

Fifty is the tin year. It is the year the next segment of life can be soldered together. Perhaps it is the year in which I learn that, like the Tin Woodman, my heart was there all along, even if I tried to cut it from me. How does one measure the distance between the part of the brain that held one’s self-mythology so close for so long and the part that unlearns it? Millimeters that may as well be light years.

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Please comment here. Thank you, Mark.

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