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Good is Good: Male Bonding Is a Good Thing

Friday, September 07, 2012

 

Tom Matlack is the former CFO of the Providence Journal and is the founder of The Good Men Project, a non-profit charitable corporation based in Rhode Island and dedicated to helping organizations that provide educational, social, financial, and legal support to men and boys at risk.

The sun was out Saturday afternoon.  A wedding moved up the start time from late to early afternoon (“Who would have a wedding in August?” one well known participant muttered at the inconvenience).  One newcomer had mistakenly waited inside rather at the outside bar for the game to start. We had to drag him out. Not having had a drink in over a decade, I came with three Cuban cigars. I was quickly down to just one as two friends raided my zip-locked bag.  The cards emerged just about the time a quorum had been established. The game was hi/low. Twenties and then coasters with IOUs flew around the wooden bar for a couple of hours. So did belly laughs.

Every guy in the place seemed to breath deeply for the first time all week.  I sat on the perimeter smoking my cigar, taking in the sun, waiting my turn to gamble and watching a dozen middle aged men do what they had done pretty much every summer Saturday afternoon for over a decade. I was down quite a bit early on some bad beats but fought my way back to the black. Near the end a wife showed up to snap a photo of her husband doing what he loved in a game that had become the focus of travel calendars and the psyche of the participants.

♦◊♦

It wasn’t an accident that this was the day that Augusta National announced that they were offering membership to Condi Rice.

There was a time when male-only meant more or less the same as white-only—power and privilege. While plenty of the guys at the Saturday afternoon poker game are successful in their professional lives, I didn’t observe them plotting to beat down the opposite sex so much as hoping to suck down some oxygen like they had emerged from a deep sea dive without air tanks.

As the end of summer approaches, I have a list of male friends I want to get on my calendar to have lunch with. Not to talk business, though that might come up, but to reconnect with about life.  Guys who know me and who can relate to the good, the bad, and the ugly of the gifts and struggles of being a middle-aged guy in 2012.

Too often the discussion of the male experience immediately gets hijacked into a discussion of the female experience.  None of what I am getting at here is meant to minimize sex trafficking, continued gender bias in the workplace, the challenges faced by moms, and the oppression of women in all forms that justifiably gave rise to feminism. I have an 18 year-old daughter and a wife both of whom I love with all my heart and who I watch navigate those issues on a daily basis.

But being a guy is no walk in the park at this point either. And saying that doesn’t, by definition, make me a sexist pig. On the contrary, attempting to find other guys with whom I can consciously bond increases the chances, in my view, that I can be a good dad and a good husband.

♦◊♦

If you’ve been paying attention to gender at all these past few years, the discussion has gotten nothing but more adversarial with cyber-feminists becoming more and more strident and men’s rights groups becoming more and more vicious in their counterattacks based on unfair divorce laws and the macro data behind the “End of Men” argument.

If anything, gender has become an even more complex issue with greater awareness and legal rights for those of varying sexual orientations and identity. God knows no two men are exactly alike, as are no two women. But gender is still centrally important to the human endeavor and, as such, the male experience is no less important than the female one, no matter what the history.

I’ve spent that last three years talking to men, writing about men, and collecting men’s stories.  What I’ve found is that men don’t generally share their experience exactly the same way women do. We are no less emotional or sensitive or nuanced than our female counterparts, but the code is somewhat different.

At the poker game or in the locker room or over lunch, we talk.  More often than not men are more than willing to spill their guts but they do it in the context of a story—either theirs or someone they know and care about. Man-to-man love is a somewhat more fragile thing. Not always as overt. Not as easy to see. But it’s just as important as women’s support groups.

I’ve sat with a man telling me the story of losing his wife to a freak infection while his toddler daughter played in a puddle nearby.  I’ve been encircled by a dozen men in the bowels of Sing Sing prison, each sharing in turn the point at which they decided to do something positive with their lives despite never having the chance to go free. I’ve hugged a member of the 82nd Airborne who survived the war but came home and had his daughter die in his arms.  I’ve stood beside an NFL Hall of Famer as he explained to a room full of teenaged boys what it was like to grow up in the poorest part of Newark with no dad, so that he had to learn Karate calm his mind and protect his family.

Each one of those guys was crying like a baby. And so was I.  So it’s not a lack of emotion that us guys are suffering from.  It’s the lack of understanding of what it means to be a man in 2012.

For more of Tom's works, as well as other pieces on related topics, go to The Good Men Project Magazine online, here.

 

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