Most people believe the older they get the less competitive they are. That is until they get sucked into the trap, usually set by friends and relatives, that they have to move with the times, they have to change, they have to be....progressive.
A few years ago, okay, many years ago, when my wife and I wanted to go out to a movie and have a bite to eat we scraped together what change we could find, called some friends and had a wonderful night out. Whatever the bill at the restaurant we would simply split it with the tip and go on with our evening. At the show we would buy our own tickets and a snack and let the evening unwind at its own pace. Sometimes, after the show, when we didn't want the evening to end, we would go for a drink or to somebody's house and have coffee and conversation. We would nearly always be home and in bed by midnight. Things were so much simpler then.
Somewhere during the unraveling grand plan of my life, around about my fifties I think, something happened to change all this. One misbegotten evening a friend decided to 'pick up the tab' at the restaurant.
My life has never been the same since.
Because this friend (look for his picture in the dictionary under the word 'idiot') engaged in this irrational act of generosity I was then obligated to buy the tickets at the movie theatre so I wouldn't feel cheap. Then our friends felt obligated to buy the snacks.
It was as though an evil force had entered our lives, an evil force called competitive reciprocity.
One time, after the show, we argued over whose house we would go to for a drink. It became so intense we had to call a truce and go to a bar instead - only to have a new argument over who would pick up the tab.
From that day on, anytime my wife and I went out with friends, we were forced into competitive reciprocity mode. I've never seen it discussed in books or agony columns but I know it to be a huge societal problem that nobody will talk about - because they don't want to look cheap.
After those first few nights it was almost as if everybody was keeping score.
Because our friends beat us by buying the drinks one night my wife thought we should take over an expensive bottle of wine on our next night out. I could see in our friend's eyes that we had 'upped' them before the evening even began.
The next time we planned to go out our friends brought an even better vintage in a bigger bottle!
In no time the wine had evolved into champagne and the price tag was almost as expensive as the entire night out.
The whole atmosphere of our nights out changed. During the meal nobody could relax because they were positioning themselves to grab the check. The act of paying had become more important than the purpose of the evening itself - which was supposed to be to relax and have fun.
One of our friends actually prepaid the restaurant by calling in his credit card. On other occasions a tip was given to the maitre'd in order to ensure that the check would be given to the right person. Theatre tickets were bought in advance and presented before the evening was to begin.
It was the buying of drinks before or after the show that was always a challenge. This was where the competition became the most intense.
At the lounge someone had to make sure they positioned themselves at the door to enter first. This was extremely important if there was a cover charge. A quick payment always gave the competitor an edge. At the bar it became necessary to sit nearest the bar or at least be in a position at the table so that the waitress could see you first.
The competition has become so intense that some of us have had to take out loans in order stay at the head of the pack. I have thought many times that all this good living and mutual generosity among friends is killing me. In fact, I've found myself wondering more and more lately if social death would not be preferable.
Then at least I could go out for a beer and a burger and have a good time for under ten bucks.
Jim Fabiano is a teacher and writer living in York, Maine. You can e-mail Jim at: firstname.lastname@example.org