Thursday, May 31, 2018

Renewal: A Life Lost and a Life Saved--Douglas H. Geister

I had a career in the health care industry as did my wife Carolyn who died from Alzheimer's after suffering all phases of this cruel disease for eight long years.  She was kept at home with private duty nursing care throughout.  The most difficult thing for me was to observe her fun loving, vivacious personality and powerful intellect gradually evaporate.

Carolyn was a charismatic feminist and renaissance woman.  She was a leader and teacher, and held positions of Clinical Professor at several universities.  Prior to our move to Asheville she was Vice President of Patient Care Services at Cincinnati Children's Medical Center.

And Carolyn changed my life.  She lived large and in "The Now".  She was a tennis player, down hill and cross country skier, golfer, was a great sailor and oil painter.  She loved the arts, traveled widely, and was fascinated by other cultures.  She had a great life and a good ride.  It was my privilege to spend my years with such an extraordinary woman.

My observation of what happened to my wife as the disease progressed through its stages had a devastating emotional impact on me.  As a result, I wallowed in self pity, drank to excess, slept for long periods, had no energy or initiative, dropped out of community activities and cut off social contacts.  I was not a pleasant person to be with.  I was in deep depression.

One day I decided to climb out of the pit I dug for myself.  I ventured out by enrolling in two classes at OLLI, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UNC Asheville.  One of them was Men's Wisdom Works, taught by Chuck Fink.  Men's Wisdom Works is Chuck's brainchild, a genius of an idea and elegant in its simplicity.  It is a way, a method by which men can get together and talk about their experiences, their hopes, dreams, plans, fears, joys and concerns.  It is something that men find hard to do because of how our culture has conditioned us, and because there are no organizations that encourage this sort of communication.

I joined Group V, a group of eleven men in generally the same age category, from a variety of different backgrounds, all of them interesting men with diverse life experiences.  We share personal information about who we are and where we are in life.  We learn from one another by sharing our life experiences.  The Group became my lifeline to getting back into a healthy lifestyle.  We have become a brotherhood of sorts, and there is nothing I would not do to support any of them.

I have learned with these brothers that life goes on, but also life is short and unforgiving.  I am fortunate in having met a woman who is my life companion.  I have a boat that we sail on a nearby lake, play golf, attend social and cultural functions and travel together.  My health is good and I'm enjoying life with Julia.  Much of it happened because of Chuck Fink and MWW Group V.  I will always be grateful for Chuck and his Men's Wisdom Works idea.  It saved my life.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Yin and Yang of Men's Wisdom Works

“This must be tough for you”.  Those empathic words of concern were softly spoken by my friend Richard.  He leaned in when my men’s group talked of a mutual friend who passed away in October of last year.  Then, Richard added, “You must know every Men’s Wisdom Works member who dies”.  I stroked my brow as I reflected, and without much of a pause I replied, “Yes, it is difficult losing these men, but there is a yang to that yin.  I’m able to see the impact MWW has on our 150 members and their loved ones while we’re still strolling above the ground."  As our members continue to age, Men's Wisdom Works supplies the shelter for sustaining meaningful friendships.  Our bonds lay the groundwork for living a good life during the latter stages of life.

Since Richard’s supportive statement three more men of MWW have passed away.  The toll grows heavy as I’m asked to speak at the memorial services for these deceased members.
To witness the love and presence our members share with our ailing brothers seems like a mirage when you consider our male-patterned conditioning to keep our feelings at bay.  Men are wired to hold back emotions and move on.  But the depth of friendship, bonding and social engagement within MWW groups changes that worn out paradigm.  As we lose fellow MWW members we cry together, remember together, and celebrate the life of our deceased brothers.  Then we move on as one.

The man who was the first man I asked to join MWW 2009 passed away early January.  Dave cleverly stated that he only joined the first group because he did not want me to be alone in this social experiment.  Dave became the heart of our group, always bellowing that “It is a great day to be alive”.  We made our loving presence felt as we comforted Dave, his wife and their family, week after week as his life slowly ebbed away.  Now, we leave an empty chair when we hold our bi-monthly meetings, so we remain forever honoring his memory and our friendship.  Dave’s widow, Kaaren, knows she is part of our extended group of men and our loved ones

This devotion to a sick or dying member of MWW certainly is not limited to my group, Group I.  The men of Men's Wisdom Works drive our ailing brothers to appointments.  As a brother's illness worsens, MWW group members make frequent visits to the three H's:  homes, hospital and hospice.  We develop schedules for visitation and food delivery.  One of our members even accepted the role of executor for a fellow member's estate as his friend's life wound down.  All 150 of us are there for each other in good times and “not so good” times.  That's what brothers do.

Perhaps our experiences with loss of aging friends may serve as an example, maybe even a role model, for older men losing friends via the ceaseless actions of the grim reaper.  The choice is clear.  One may choose to isolate himself and have loneliness as his sole companion when he rounds third and head for home.  Or, an aging man may choose to surround himself with friends, especially male friends.  The latter life choice offers a living antidote to depression, anger and early death for a man who otherwise would languish as an island in his later years.

In a recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families, cites the following stats concerning loneliness and life span:  One analysis of 148 separate health studies found that people who cultivated a wide network of social networks had a 50% lower early mortality risk than those lacking friends and social relationships.  In fact, Coontz tells us that having a substantial network of friends gives older folks better protection against early mortality than death due to smoking or obesity.

Research of 28,000 people in nearly 100 countries by William Chopik of Michigan State University found that among older adults, relationships with friends are a better indicator of good health and happiness than relationships with family.  A 2017 study found people who often socialize with good friends have partners reporting fewer depressive symptoms as do study subjects.  The evidence supports what the men of Men's Wisdom Works experience daily in our retirement.  
That positive yang I spoke of earlier is the lifeblood for the MWW groups.  Our membership grows.  In that spirit of renewal, our 15th MWW group forms tomorrow.  How does MWW sustain its expansion?  The many stories of the impact on the lives of those of us in MWW seem to go viral in our city of 89,000.  For older men in Asheville, our stories broadcast messages of hope and joy to men in search of meaning in life's third stage.

The members of the newest Men’s Wisdom Works group already understand the uniqueness of MWW. Each man expressed his desire to join by telling me of his eagerness to develop bonds with other older men.  Like the rest of us they’re eager to build a community of male friends.
So, as we mourn our losses, we continue our mission with a growing roster of members and groups.  Here’s a toast to members we’ve lost and to the new members we gain, and to the joyous and meaningful life 150 older men and their loved ones enjoy today.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

In Memoriam

Change is inevitable, but changes can sometimes prove difficult for people as they age.  I’m no different.

I’ve learned the skill of acceptance when it comes to changes within Men’s Wisdom Works.  I’m certain that the same holds true with other areas of my life as well.  The toughest change for me to navigate as the founder of Men’s Wisdom Works is the death of our members.

Today, I want to shine the light on the life of a member of MWW who died November 29th, Nick Jordan of Group 5.  This post includes a reprise of Nick's blog post from four years ago.   You'll find it below highlighted in red.  My post today pays tribute to this most generous man and his MWW group who served as Nick’s “Band of Brothers” from the day the group formed until the day he died.

I first met Nick when I volunteered to join SCORE, formerly known as Service Corps of Retired Executives.  Nick was the chapter president for the Asheville chapter of SCORE.  Nick encouraged me to participate as the training director.  I witnessed increasing signs of growth and strength in our local chapter of SCORE via Nick's leadership.

In 2012 Nick joined the then newest group, Group 5.  He disclosed his terminal diagnosis at the first meeting of his group.  His courage helped solidify this group unlike any other I've witnessed.  Besides his numerous volunteer activities and his devoted membership to his MWW group, Nick gave of himself in the most noble of ways.

Upon joining MWW and OLLI/UNCA Asheville and knowing of his terminal diagnosis, Nick created a special program at OLLI fittingly titled the "Gift of Time".

Nick’s "Gift of Time" program helps folks, no matter their current state of health, understand all of the work and planning one needs so family members and loved ones avoid the many sensitive issues that often arise near the end of life.  Participants learn the value of writing these directives, and sharing the papers and plans with family members well before death becomes imminent.

Thus, the burdens and angst over handling and distributing personal affects, financial matters, medical decisions, and even the details of memorial service planning become clear.   The Gift of Time’s contribution is that tough decisions and possible disagreements between family members will not afflict them during a time of high stress.  That stress easily can grow out of control with emotions ranging between grief and pain, and when the likelihood for conflict within a family rises to a new potential high.  Nick’s gift to us all will stand as a legacy and a loving tribute to Nick.  

At the bottom of the blog is photo taken with Nick's dear friend and companion, Betty Doll.  Their smiles reveal their joyous perspectives on life and the happiness they shared in lives together.

Nick's post was the second ever post on this blog.  Here is the reprise of Nick’s blogpost from November 15, 2013:

"I joined one of the MWW groups about 18 months ago. I was interested in meeting new people and exploring topics that could be shared in confidence and with honesty. Over these past months through the dialogue within the group, I have come to not only respect the different personalities within the group but to care about them as individuals with very different life experiences than mine. Through that sharing there have been insights I have gleaned about myself. I have been given the opportunity to talk about things I would not ordinarily share.

There is laughter, humor, pathos, moments of silence as you know you are listening to a very important sharing from someone else. Bonding is a hackneyed word and greatly overused. But bonds of friendship have been formed and I believe if I said I was in trouble and asked for help, the 10 other men in my group would each respond by saying 'what can I do for you'. 

None of us would give up the group meetings, the informal breakfasts we have, some volunteer work we do as a group. This is one of best things I have ever done for myself. All one needs to do is be willing to keep confidences and to open and share as you feel appropriate." 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Discuss-Participate-Contribute without Prescribing Solutions

     In the 6 yrs that I’ve been a member of MWW.  I have submitted only one blog. That’s because I don’t write unless I have something to say. Now, again, I do.

     Our meeting of August 14 reaffirmed all the reasons that I first joined MWW and why I am so committed to it. In the short space of 2 hours we managed to talk about the following subjects  - not just talk but discuss, each of us participating; each of us contributing something; none of us prescribing solutions or presuming to suggest what someone ought to do or how anyone ought to act. The result of this atmosphere and our respect for these norms is that I’m pretty confident in saying that we each took something away from the meeting, whether it was new knowledge, or a new way of looking at a problem, or even a new way of looking at ourselves; and that this is often how we feel when a meeting ends.

     The range of topics included these:

✦ A painful change in relationships in the family

✦ The dilemma of being so active in retirement that choices need to be made when the timing of some of those things we are now free to do clashes with our meetings

✦ The effect the current political atmosphere has on us – our concerns for the future, our physical and psychological well-being, our determination to “do something”, tempered by our frustrations about the limited impact we feel capable of having

✦ The outbreak of the first world war – inevitable or accidental? - which we got to from the previous conversation that in turn lead to the cyclical theory of history (and climate change)

✦ Our joys and concerns, which continue to be the foundation of our check-in, unfailingly yielding fruitful topics for discussion or perhaps something to think about away from the group

            What particularly struck me about this was how the conversation moved easily from one subject to another – each thought triggering a question or idea that made sense in the moment – and how seriously engaged everyone was. I couldn’t have known it would be like this when I joined, but as our membership has stabilized over the years and, together with other activities we share – breakfasts, the occasional ball game, social activities that include friends or family – the place this group holds for me in my life has taken on great importance.

         Now, a few observations about some of the topics I mentioned.

✦ On the issue of family, a number of us had relevant experiences, but regardless of how we handled it we recognize that every such situation is unique in its agony. That’s why advice would be inappropriate, except to say what works for me and to offer comfort, hope and empathy.

✦ Choices in retirement. It was both understandable and comforting to me that many of us seem to be more active in retirement than when we were working, and that the place of this group in the order of things has such high standing.

✦ The current political atmosphere. Going back as far as the last presidential campaign, a number of us have acknowledged how deeply we have been affected by the tone and outcome, and how repercussions extend to constitutional questions (the place of the electoral college, provision for removal of a president, gerrymandering, to name just a few of the subjects to which the election gave new life).

✦ Clearly, the topic of World War I (known at the time as The Great War, since a replay was unthinkable….except for those who foresaw that the Versailles Treaty contained the seeds of the next war) arose from consideration of the present political atmosphere. Brief though our focus on this topic was, it did raise the question of “inevitable or accidental”. My feeling is that it was both. The alliances didn’t make it inevitable, but their obligations to come to one another’s aid created the condition for the chain reaction that took place upon the assassination in Serbia. That same obligation is the heart, and the entire point, of contemporary alliances.

✦ Finally, on the cyclical theory of history, I do believe there is a tendency to repeat errors, but of course since the circumstances of each are different, and arise in different cultures, it is fairly impossible to recognize at the time, not to mention the difficulty of stopping it even if we were able to recognize this tendency. However I also believe progress is made from one disaster to another. For me though, the jury is still out on whether it’s one step forward two steps backward, or two forward and one back. Either way, the progress is incremental…and v e r y  s l o w.

          It feels good to return from a meeting so filled with recollections and ideas, and stimulated to commit them to paper. That didn’t happen every day that I went to work!


Sunday, July 9, 2017

Crossroads for Boomers and Beyond:  Aging and Technology

Aging for baby boomers appears as polar opposite to the aging and retirement of our fathers and grandfathers--by miles.  Demographic numbers back-up this fact.  Current research findings indicate the following statistics about aging:

  • In 2000 the aging demographic for people over 60 years of age stood at 16.5%.  By the year 2025 that number grows to a whopping 25% of the American population.
  • Americans who are 65 years or older surpassed 50 million for the first time in 2016.  Researchers predict that number will hit 71 million by 2030, and 83 million by 2050.  M.I.T.'s Age Lab confirms that there are 77 million Americans born between 1946-1964.  The report continues by telling us that 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day, and are likely to continue that trend for the next 19 years. Now members of the boomer generation pass age 65 at a rate of nearly one every 7 seconds.
  • People are living longer--life expectancy at birth grew by 10.5 years between 1950-2010.  People who are 65 today may live roughly about 20 more years.  The Census Bureau said almost 90% of that cohort wish to remain in their home as they age.
        Boomers believe life should continue for their generation in ways never before experienced by previous generations on their life's journey.  Are boomers realistic about aging?  Yes, thanks to technology. Technology npw being developed mostly by millenials may well be the link between boomers and a higher quality of life for the "never-say-die baby boomers.
         Boomers created the World Wide Web, tablets, smartphones, Microsoft, and Apple.  Now, as this massive generation ages, technology translates into new research, gizmos, and apps to make life in the "golden years" safer and more enjoyable.  This adds up to potentially newer and easier ways to exercise expected freedoms and independence that boomers see as a must for modern aging.  You may ask, how is this playing out today and tomorrow?  A new world lurks within your smartphone, and computers spurred on by Artificial Intelligence (AI), and the app development talents of millenials.
         Scientists are developing everything everything from mattress sensors that monitor heart rate, to smart walkers that look for obstacles, to belts that deploy air bags if someone is about to fall. Researchers work hand in hand with tech companies to fight the indignities of aging and to help people live longer and better in their own homes.  "Aging in Place", still in its relative infancy, is driven by tech savvy boomers who hate the stigma and reality of getting older, both for themselves and their elderly parents.  Millenials provide the engine to empower boomers to put that stigma to rest.
         Active Protective, a Philadelphia based company, developed a "smart belt" that's able to sense when a person is about to fall.  Small airbags deploy offering protection to that person's hips.  The National Council on Aging said that 2.8 million Americans are treated in emergency rooms for falls each year, and that 800,000 of those patients end up hospitalized.  Falls contribute to roughly 27,000 death per year.
         Tech giant Google--a bastion of youth--has come to realize that baby boomers may well be early adopters of self-driving cars in development.  Other businesses are making it easier for people with arthritis or tremors to wear small, specialized monitors that provide real-time tracking of their health vitals.
         Virtual reality research on aging at San Diego State's Neuromechanics and Neuroplacticity Lab places sensors on a person's brain and other parts of the body as test subjects over 60 experience different scenarios while immersed in a VR environment that turns a lab floor into a virtual reality of a narrow plank 60 feet in the air.  Data collected will assist in creating algorithms to predict when a person is about to fall.
           Ocuvera, a start-up based in Lincoln Nebraska, employs 3D cameras, and advanced software to analyze the body language of patients in hospital beds.  M.I.T. fosters related work producing WiGait, a small sensor that studies a person's gait to observe signs of stroke or Parkinson's Disease.
          An estimated one-third of Americans 65 or older live alone.  That figure jumps to 50% by the time a person hits 85.  Scientists and physicians posit that living alone can cause a profound sense of loneliness and isolation for some people which in turn can lead to health complications--notably depression, substance abuse, and high blood pressure.  Studies continue to show that loneliness can also contribute to dementia and early death.
          Safety and loneliness well provide the hurdles for boomers aging in place, and there's a major shortage of professional caregivers who make in-home visits.  Here comes technology offering significant help for the aging U.S. population.
           People who live alone or feel detached from social engagement also can connect to others through devices such as Amazon Echo/Alexa and Google Home, both of which are voice activated personal assistants. The Echo can be used for person to person phone calls, while Amazon recently added a video screen called "Show".  The competition to Amazon (Samsung, Google and Apple) is developing similar technology to Echo Show.  For older folks with hand tremors and other physical limitations voice activated assistants can be a reasonable improvement to the swipe and wipe features in smartphones. If only Amazon Echo or Google home would remind our kids to call or visit.
           GreatCall markets a network of tiny sensors strategically positioned in the homes of seniors choosing to "age in place".  Sensors monitor whether these folks are going about their daily activities, such as getting in and out of bed, preparing meals, and using the bathroom.  This network of sensors looks for worrisome changes in a person's daily routines, and alerts off-site caregivers if such changes occur.  This technology gives a holistic picture of in-home activities for caregivers.
            One can imagine the awestruck suspicion that parents and grandparents of boomers would give at these "newfangled" approached to aging.  I guess they'd react with their heads a shaking to find "The Clapper" and "Life Alert" to be already obsolete technology for Baby Boomers.

Have to run.  My Echo calls.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Men's Words of Wisdom: A Memoir About Resurfacing from Depression

My greatest joy within the Men's Wisdom Works network remains the deep and intimate friendships our members share with each other.  One such friendship within my treasure trove of MWW friends remains Bill Petz.  Bill was one of our 10 founding MWW members.  He adds value to the lives of so many people with his quiet, calm, and deep perspective on life.  Bill lives with Parkinson's, but that hardly impedes his forward and thoughtful view of life.  On a deep and personal level Bill understands the need for men to connect in order to experience the healing and bonding power we find within our men's groups.

Recently, Bill lent me a signed copy of one of his books.  Interestingly, the author's sister, Betsy Finger, was key to our founding a men's group similar to MWW at a retirement community in Asheville in 2012.  We renamed that group "Givens Guy's Group" to reflect the name of their home, Givens Estates.

Bill Finger's book, The Crane Dance: Taking Flight in Midlife, published last year, sheds light on Bill's life experiences in helping him accept and overcome his depression.  A depression that's been his life companion.

I read for pleasure, yet this book defied my reading habit.  Chronicling his life as a preacher's son from the Deep South, Mr. Finger harnessed every ounce of my attention as he tells of his lifetime struggle with depression from its origin to his embracing his condition.  Embracing his depression led to his recovery.  In many ways I found Bill's methods for working to harness his depression mirroring my own path to feeling whole and balanced.

Bill's work with men's groups predates my own by a couple of decades, Men's group work became the cornerstone for our individual growth.  Bill and I know other men, as may you, living with the dark monster of depression. More than likely, those men may have need to carry a toolbox filled with options, similar to our own.  Mr. Finger and I value the many productive years of therapy that led to acceptance culminating in self confidence and inner strength. 

Medication aided us to open our blinders to change our emotional darkness to the light of hope.  We share the gift of self expression to face our demons.  Only then can we find our basis of joy, that like depression, has always been deep within our being.

Bill employs dance, ritual, poetry, teaching, learning, family love, and internal patience to find that sweet spot within himself.  I substituted Bill Finger's creative outlets of dance, poetry and ritual with my forays into acting, stand-up comedy (brief and foreboding as that was), and storytelling.  Point being, either way we understand the importance of self expression as an important step toward recovery.

To that point, I shared a sense of liberation after reading a story in the news today, April 17th.  Prince Harry disclosed his 20 year battle with depression following the death of his mother, Princess Diana.  Indeed, self acceptance and self revelation serve as conduits to recovery for many a man, even men of royal privilege.  Revealing your true self fosters liberation from the dark shadows of depression.  Most people will accept your truth and may see you in a more respectful light.  If someone doesn't it may be time to reassess that relationship.

Folks, if you, or a man you know or love suffers from depression help him find his internal toolbox to aid in his recovery.  "The Crane Dance" by Bill Finger, should serve as a special resource within his toolkit as a man tries to tame that  consuming monster, depression.  It certainly helped me.  If you'd like to buy this wonderful book about living with depression through the lens of a man: Click Here.

Personally, I offer my deep and abiding thanks to both Bill's.  Mr. Petz and Mr. Finger.  I honor your inspiring work.

Monday, November 21, 2016

I feel a deep sense of gratitude as I'm surrounded by good souls.  One hundred and twenty five good men belong to Men's Wisdom Works (MWW).  These men inspire me day after day.

It is though our male lens that MWW members listen to and care about each other.  We leave behind judgment or the attempt to salvage one another. One more thing.  MWW members socialize in force as well.  Our bonds remain strong and continue to grow.

I launched the first MWW group in 2009.  At our first meeting we were admonished to be “Fucking Authentic” by our 87 year old retired psychologist and resident curmudgeon, Albert.  Albert died in 2010, but his words remain burned into the mindset and behaviors of our now 13 MWW groups.  Personal discussions and authenticity guide us to this day.

I am deeply thankful every day.  I'm thankful for the memories and contributions of Albert and the five other MWW members who joined him in the peace of life eternal.  We miss Albert and the 5 other deceased MWW pioneers; Larry, Steve, Stephen, Jules and Murray.  All 6 men made MWW stronger and more meaningful for all of us.  

I am especially grateful for every one of our 125 members of Men’s Wisdom Works.  Without their dedication, enthusiasm, and commitment to the men in their group my concept of men helping men would still be but a pipe dream.  Thanks, gentlemen.

Cindy, Drew, Andrea and Greg I’m most thankful for you.  Without my wife, 2 sons, and daughter-in-law, I’d be without inspiration, sound advice, and unconditional love.  Besides many other reasons I owe my profound thanks to my wife, Cindy, for her contributions to the lift off of MWW.  Cindy came up with the name, Men’s Wisdom Works.  Now, 125 men feel fulfilled by their groups and remain bound by our name/your name, Men’s Wisdom Works.  Thanks, baby doll.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

     I’m struck by two equally powerful forces upon hearing the words “Father” or “Dad”.  Being the age of retirement I now clearly define my own fatherhood by the expression, “Father is the Son of Man”.  Just as I had influenced my dad, my sons continue to illuminate my path.  Drew, Greg and I are getting together in a few days to celebrate our special relationship.

     The connection I shared with my dad seemed tricky and somewhat distant to the untrained observer.   Complicated, probably best describes the father/son relationship we navigated.  My dad, Joe, never had it easy fulfilling his definition of fatherhood.  He so struggled to make a living for his family of four.  But through a combination of enterprises he kept us afloat.  His worried expression seldom fell from our view.

     My mother was quite attractive, but it seldom came easy for dad to share the intricacies of his life with her given her moods and blast of narcissism.   But, my dad’s devotion and love for his wife still serves as an inspiration and model for me to this day.  They kissed and hugged a lot as do my wife and I today.  We don’t need a reason.  Like my parents, we just do.

     When I was a boy of 4, dad needed a diversion from the pressures of work and home.  He found that positive respite in Masonry.   Here’s dad and our family 63 years ago, just before he joined the Fraternal Order.

     For the many of the next 33 years I resented his frequent evening absences from his family.  What was it about his wife, daughter and me that made it seem like he favored his “Masonic brothers” over us?  I felt abandoned.  My feelings toward him transformed during a long illness I battled in my 20’s.  It was dad who comforted me, encouraged me and supported me.  I had missed the point about his devotion to his family.  Far from abandoned I was loved.  Joe Fink was there for his ill son.  He always was there for me.

     After 62 years I now understand dad joined the Masons not for him, but for us, especially for his son, me.  He was a better man, and a better father.  He rose through the ranks of the Masons eventually receiving the invitation to become a 33rd degree Mason.  Some say it is the highest degree in Masonry.  Some say it is the third degree that ranks supreme in Masonry.  I’ll leave that up to the Masons to debate.  

     A fellow MWW member and Mason, Nevin, told me of the significance of the 33rd degree.  Nevin explained that this degree is based on service to country, family, community, and Masonry.   He told me character was a driving standard of acceptance into the 33rd degree of Masonry.  I never understood the significance that my father made to Masons and his family until my conversation with Nevin.  His service to Masonry was a service to his family because it kept him balanced and happy.

     Nevin wondered when my dad died.  I told him 1995.  Nevin asked how many attended my father’s funeral.  I told him it was a bitter cold day in January with 4 inches of snow on the ground, yet more than 250 people attended his funeral.  Nevin just said, “Yes.  Your dad was a 33 degree Mason”.

     Before my father died we exchanged powerful words of love.  I gave him a plaque I had made for him honoring his service to Masonry and his love and devotion to his family.  I never saw his tears cascade until that moment.

     Then it was his turn a few weeks later.  In his own poignant way he confided, “Son, you are a far better father than I was to you”.  Life came full circle.  As they say, “Son is the father of man.”  It wasn't that I was a better father.  I learned fatherhood from a 33rd degree Mason.  I only hope my sons see their father as half the man their grandfather was. 

     Often, I’m asked why I started Men’s Wisdom Works.  Truthfully, I was having a difficult time finding meaning in my life after closing my business and retiring.  I needed to talk with like-minded men.  Thus I founded MWW.  But, my inspiration was and is 100% Joe Fink.  I learned from this past Master Mason, that inherent in fatherhood is brotherhood.

Joe Fink, I miss you and I will forever love you.

By the way, dad loved a party.  Here he is in his true colors.

Happy Father's Day to the men of MWW and fathers everywhere.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Importance of Social Engagement for Men--Terry Fields, Facilitator Group VII

It’s the second Tuesday of the month and Group VII is again targeting a local pub for their alternate week social get-to-gather.  By 4:40 everyone has arrived and ordered some refreshment and the conversation is beginning to focus on the Sunday game, the status of the election, the recent registration, the recent storm or any number of other essential topics.  The mood is easy and warm with some good-nature jabs, and a clear sense of the affection we feel for each other.  Attendance changes at these gatherings but generally six to eight of the 10 group members show up and it seems like everyone makes an effort to set this time aside for getting together.  The social gatherings seldom last longer than the regular groups on the first and third Tuesday of the month and by 6:30 everyone has bid farewell and is gone.

The pattern of regular group meetings with discussions that typically focus on values, issues or immediate concerns of the group or a group member, juxtaposed with weekly social gatherings, has provided our group with a way to stay focused on our original “charter” while including an opportunity for the free form banter and easy conversation that seems to accompany close friendships.  We very seldom need to refocus during regular group meetings and our social encounters have fostered the topic of the next regular group on more than one occasion.

There is more than a small measure of comfort in knowing that this is a group of friends that will be close for the rest of our lives.

Monday, November 16, 2015

A Poem Reflecting on Social Bonding for Men's Wisdom Works

Recently, Group I of Men's Wisdom Work engaged in an activity in which all groups partake.  We partied.  It was our cigar and scotch smoker, held at a member's neighborhood outdoor party place.  Neither smoking nor drinking is expected at our social events

One of the founding members of MWW, Bill Petz penned the poem below to mark the occasion.  The event and poem really emphasize the importance of social engagement for older men.  Lack of male bonding and socializing often lead to isolation and depression as men age.  All MWW members realize the importance of social bonding within MWW and in other areas of our lives.  We know our bonding strengthens us.

I encourage you to read Bill's poem below:

Smoker Truth

Historic patriarchy nor
sarcasm’s sting nor
feelings buried or bare
can deny the smoker truth:

gentle men, courageously transparent,
amid gifts of food, drink, self
and holy smoke wafting spirits
high, glory days remembered,
strengthen links today, proving
Men's Wisdom Works.

Bill Petz
Men's Wisdom Works
Group I

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Men as Friends: True Intimacy or Covert Intimacy-Chuck Fink

"A friend is someone who knows all about you and loves you just the same."- Martin Luther King, Jr.

How many of you engage in "covert intimacy?" So, you're probably wondering, "What is covert intimacy?"  This evocative term best describes the way men express fondness for each other, especially in the United States.

Rather than express how we really feel about each other, men have been conditioned instead to throw a punch line or a friendly put down to the other man.  It’s safe.  It's fun.  It is not truly intimate. By engaging in covert intimacy we easily avoid expressing our true feelings and outward affection for each other.  We mask our feelings affirming our friendships with phrases like , “Hey ass wipe”, “Yeah, douche bag”, “You’re a dick wad”. 

It gets even more graphic, but I'll spare you.  Upon hearing these “manly terms of endearment”, most women react with disgust.  They’re right to express this reaction.  It is disgusting to sublimate close and deep feelings about another human to macho conditioning.

Because of Men’s Wisdom Works (MWW) I’ve been fortunate to develop many deep friendships, and among them stand men I consider my intimate friends.  To me, these men hold a special place in my emotional domain. How shallow these relationships would have been if they remained bound by covert intimacy alone.  

A few years ago I developed what I venture to say was one of the deepest male friendships I've enjoyed in my 65 years.  My friend and non-related brother, Steve and I played terrible golf, went to local eateries and events, and stopped for some beer at one of the 19 craft breweries in Asheville.  Our wives enjoyed the social time we all shared as couples.  My "brother" and I grew closer.  

Steve and I headed to Charlotte and back once a month for tongue sandwiches at a Jewish deli in Charlotte.  Seven hours round trip for a delicacy whose very name causes a gigantic gag reaction in the uninitiated. But for us this was Mecca.  During those sojourns we dug deep into our life experiences, and shared personal disclosures even beyond what occurs in some MWW meetings.

Then a few years after building our close bond, my friend Steve told me he had terminal cancer with just a month or two to go.  Steve kept this one disclosure very close to the vest.  He didn’t want pity and he didn’t want to be treated differently.  Others questioned why he waited so long to disclose his truth.  I did not.  I knew Steve lived life fiercely on his terms.  This was no different.  He wanted the little time that remained for him to be as much of a normal continuance of his life as possible.  He wasn't dramatic.

I knew this required a great balancing act on my part.  I expressed my care, love, and support, directly and often.  But I understood "normal" also meant playfulness, humor, and covert intimacy.  Steve needed both normal and "weird normal".  So we resumed our loving expressions, some cloaked in covert intimacy.

Steve’s 70th birthday preceded his death by just a few weeks.  His wonderful wife, Karen, threw a huge birthday party at the fanciest hotel in Asheville.  It was Steve’s celebratory farewell to friends and family from around the country.  He didn’t want a funeral or memorial service.  He chose to hang with people from his past and present while he was still converting oxygen to carbon dioxide.  "Steve" stories filled the evening.  Unfortunately, I had a family obligation that I had to attend out of town.  So, I missed the party.
Karen and Steve asked his close friends who were going to miss the party to send in video messages of well wishes.  Mine began with “Hey Ass Wipe, I love you”.  The rest of the love video related goofy things we had done together in just the three years we knew each other, followed by my deepest expression of love and affection for my friend, my brother.

Some of those in attendance were shocked by my raunchy salutation to Steve.  Steve, Karen, and members of his MWW group were not shocked.  They knew Steve intimately and appreciated that I had achieved balance between true intimacy and the covert kind.  My expressions of covert intimacy acted as a thin veil.  When I lifted that veil, my love for Steve poured out. I miss him everyday, especially when I eat a tongue sandwich.
For men like me, friendship had always been about work and play.  Most of my male friends were, well, guys I played golf with or with whom I tipped a few beers.  When we relocated from Cincinnati to Asheville, those once strong friendships based on hanging out together slowly withdrew to the vastness of my past.  Some of my old buddies from Ohio and I still anchor our friendships via the drinking hole, that soul sucking game of golf, and reminiscing over old stories.  These were good times.  A good friend seemed only a laugh and a beer away.

Work and fun served as a warm backdrop, but you wouldn’t find deep and intimate friendships even with a depth finder.  I truly enjoy my old friends.  The problem is we’ve been conditioned not to disclose too much of ourselves.  We clung to the belief that being intimate with one another weakens us to other men, or so we believed.   WRONG!

Retirement and Men’s Wisdom Works introduced me and the other men to a whole new definition of what it means for a man to have friends, deep friendships, the kind of friends you can fully expose your life to, because these men truly care.  In fact, our fellow MWW brothers prove our commitment to one another every day, for the big things like transportation to chemotherapy or to our being there for the widow of a member who passed.  The new widow needs us as we need one another.  Our brotherhood includes sisters too.

We still engage in plenty of play and some work.  We eat together, visit breweries, plan trips to a nearby lake, host house concerts, and engage in the little acts of brotherhood, like just hanging out, volunteering at schools, or going to our local minor league baseball game as a team of men.  As older men we finally appreciate both the big and little aspects of life.

But the greatest glue holding us together takes form at our bi-monthly meetings where we discuss in an intimate manner deeply personal issues or topics that have a great impact on men of our certain age.  It is here where we break the old, self-limiting code of avoiding self revelation.  It is here where we learn about the authentic man in each of us.  The authentic men we've come to know starts with getting familiar with our own authentic self.  For many of us, that “real” guy lurked in the background of covert intimacy rarely able to have seen the light of day.

Not anymore.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

What It Means To Be a Real Man-by Chuck Fink

 “Be a man”, “Man up” “Are you a man or a mouse”,” Let’s make a man out of you”, “Men don’t cry”, and “Grow a pair”.  These messages are drummed into men almost at birth, or at least until we feel shame. 
I first earned one of these admonishments when I was 8 years old and playing shortstop in little league baseball.  A hard hit baseball off the bat of a coach caught me in the same place we’re told to grow a pair.  Aside from my circumcision this was the greatest pain to stoke my nerve endings to that point in my young life.  In agony and rolling around the infield, I was looking for aid and comfort.  Instead the coach came up and commanded me to “Shake it off and act like a man”.  Did he forget I was eight years old?  Strangely, I walked around the field a bit, dusted myself off and continued playing, although my little boy voice echoed at a higher pitch.
I have a basic problem with these terribly unwise notions for defining manhood.  Messages of machismo are holding us back and causing damage to our society.  Let’s look at the pitfalls and the results.  To do this we have to look at what it means to be a man.

Is being a real man shaking off pain, not showing emotion, withholding tears, and being the strong silent type? Let’s get real.  Many men withhold emotions until an outlet presents itself for one to unleash one’s suppressed emotion.  The past pain becomes current anger, aggression and depression. 
Everyone pays when this erupts.  Our significant others, children, pets, even drivers on the road take the brunt.  Experts say the physically weaker the other person, the more likely she or he is to feel the anger, and endure sometimes violent repercussions.  If men express their emotions in a functional, direct, and calmer manner spousal abuse in the United States would not be so alarmingly high.  Some men have forsaken a very positive message learned in childhood; never hit a girl or woman. 
So, what does it really mean to be a man?  First it’s not about calling forth the internal macho man.  It’s about being human.  Real men care for and assist the weak and vulnerable in their lives.  Real men have compassion, and confidently express their emotions in a calm and clear manner.  Expressing emotion doesn’t connote yelling and screaming.  Instead of ramping up the overplayed macho man inside us we must further develop our communication skills of listening, giving feedback, and accepting criticism.
I learned of my need to improve my communication skills as a member of Men’s Wisdom Works.  In MWW groups men learn to speak about deep personal issues, and from our peers we learn better ways of managing ourselves.  We learn such skills by listening and talking openly and honestly with other men, men who’ve been there and understand the human impact and what’s at stake.  This is therapeutic, but it is not therapy. We listen, but we don’t analyze or tell other men what they should do.  Instead, men convey experiences in similar situations.  That's not advice. That's wisdom and experience.  I’ve yet to master all these communication skills, but with the help of the men in MWW I am getting better.
My temper developed a much longer fuse as I strive not to light it.  I now can talk through my anger and frustration, and I even accept feedback from my wife more openly and more functionally.  She says I'm a better listener.
So, the bottom line: I’ve learned to grow a pair.  No, not that kind of pair.  Communication and emotional balance are the pair of my being that I strive to improve.  This is not for the impatient.  It takes time, self-monitoring, and a commitment to improve.  Thanks Group I of Men's Wisdom Works for helping me see the light and for coaching me to become a man, a better man, a real man.
Now, let's change the narrative with our sons and grandsons.  

Monday, May 4, 2015

Esse Quam Videre (Being Authentic)

What am I doing in a men's  group?  Answer:  growing up and finally becoming myself.  By now I was supposed to be an adult:  smart,  mature,  wise,  a sage elder.  I think many of us guys find the retirement thing a little surprising at first.  Some of us can be a little lost as our careers, that defined us, disappear.
There's a lot of wisdom on the topic of how to spend  this beautiful season of life.  Time to give back. Volunteer for a good cause.  Do those things we always really wanted to do.  Enjoy life.  Spend some real time with our families.  Travel.  Take some courses.  Loose a few pounds.  Relax.  Such a formidable agenda!
For me, I was foaming at the mouth to draw silly pictures (full time) that would make folks smile or think.  This personal avidity since grammar school found outlets in school newspapers, on my drill sergeant's wall, then newspaper editorial pages, magazines, newsletters, boring PowerPoints and lately book illustrations, an online journal and teaching.  But my drawing was done evenings and weekends because I had a more important goal: to help my two sons thrive and achieve their dreams.  Lucky for me I found an interesting day job and lived in a city that had a booming real estate market.  When I needed advice I generally turned to people more mature than I, women.  Well, not always.  My father and a few guy friends would listen and seemed to understand.  But, since being a pup, there had not been a lot of strong male relationships in my life.
Visiting an old pal in Key West, I was invited to his "men's lunch."  All retirees, from all over, and a very wide range of backgrounds.  They knew each other well and easily talked about their families,  projects, feelings, and relationships.   Sports, lower-back-pain and hearing-loss were hardly mentioned.  I was impressed.  I wanted to join, but Key West was a long way from Asheville.
Answers are all around, close-by, but often we're just not listening.  Fast-forward.  Back in Asheville, around the Reuter Center at UNCA, there was a men's group forming called Men's Wisdom Works.  I was on it in a flash.  The organizer, had an outline and format that made sense to me.   We began having bi-weekly meetings at Jubilee downtown,  then meetings for breakfast on alternate weeks.  We were/are all very different men and similar at the same time.  The group chemistry is outstanding.
In the beginning we had very little in the way of ground rules and an alpha (small A) male emerged who has a very light touch.  Most times topics emerge organically from our check-ins.  Most meetings go very well.  The discussions are fun, often deep, but no lectures, and the listening is profound.  Our male-egos are checked at the door.  Coming up on four years, we have grown from colleagues to brothers.  We've shared our lives, literally.
As we've spent time together and become more comfortable with each other,  something has started to happen to me.  I'm becoming more relaxed with and understanding of myself.  They've heard all my jokes, twice.   I'm encouraged to speak more in the first-person than in the third.  Other group members are way ahead of me on this new "self awareness and authenticity" and the positive growth shows.  Yup, I still have a long way to go, but my brothers are hiking on the same path.  Good for us all.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Best of the Rest -- Don Pfister

Nineteen seventy was not a good year for me.  My brother died from untreated peritonitis following an appendectomy.  My father died a few weeks later.  Through it all I was an airman serving in Viet Nam.  My title in Nam, "Base Casualty Control Coordinator", seemed to spill into my personal life.  My emotions became another casualty from battles both in Viet Nam and at home.  Issues lingered, but life continued.

Having an MA in counseling with a concentration in small group dynamics, I became involved with the Men's Movement early on.  As an example, I enjoyed sitting with Robert Bly at an Omega Institute event in the late eighties or early nineties.  I've been a member of at least six men's groups over the years,, having started, with the help of others, at least three groups.

In Asheville I attended an ongoing weekly men's group at a community church in the early 2000's, but I grew dissatisfied with the constantly changing membership so I started a smaller group there with the help of a friend.  He and I were the first to drop out when the group focused on the 3 B's; beer, ball games, and broads.  I was searching for a group offering more meaning and in-depth discussions of personal issues.

Our MWW group is the BEST men's group I've ever joined.  I attribute that to the fact that whether by chance or determination, all of us had previously done significant "personal work on ourselves".  This close knit group creates and perpetuates a culture of non-egotistical sharing of self.  I'm impressed by this since 80% of the men in my MWW group are P.I.P.'s, Previously Important People".  Our P.I.P.'s and other members share personal information with an abundance of modesty, and the group itself reflects the same attribute of modesty.

We sure avoid the 3-B's.  Likewise, we avoid turning our meetings into advice giving.  Rather, we'll reflect we've done in similar circumstances.  Take it or leave it.

And then we breakfast together twice a month.  I never miss a breakfast.  That's where we really get to know one another, talk about politics or social issues, and laugh.  At our breakfasts we're just guys.  Laughter and authenticity is what keeps us together.

At 70 I am more willing to ask for help.  I realize I'm not alone in that thought.  Now I have men to whom I can reach out if I ever need help.  The regular meetings and breakfasts are among the most spiritual/religious times of my week.

Though I knew him prior to our joining this group, I did not know Stephen Jones would be in my group.  He got to know me and care about me like no other man ever did other than my own brother.  Stephen saw me as a lonely person and he reached out to me.  I was his listening friend.  Our group continues to be invaluable in my mourning the death of Stephen Jones.  Stephen was my closest friend since the death of my older brother at age 26.  My Men's Wisdom Works group continues to sustain me because life continues.

Monday, March 2, 2015

From Skepticism to Opening Up -- Ted Alexander

I’ve never been big on joining groups. Heck, I didn’t either bother with the Cub Scouts. It’s not my style. So when I was approached by a good and longtime friend to consider Men’s Wisdom Works, I viewed the suggestion with a ton of skepticism. To add to my hesitancy, the group had been together for a couple of years. At the very least, I’d be an interloper, not privy to personalities, peculiarities, and undercurrents. I had a vision of the old Burt Reynolds’ movie “Starting Over,” where a bunch of divorced, angry men sat in a circle in a church basement and bitched about their wives, ex-wives and girlfriends.

Initial reaction: Not for me, Jack.

But after some thought, I decided to trust the instincts of my friend, and joined. I wasn’t initially very active in the discussions as I studied the group dynamics, and I know my lack of conversation made some of the guys uncomfortable—minimal participation interpreted as a negative judgment (which was neither intended, nor true).

 I figured in a week or two, they’d kick me out, and that would be the end of that.

But they didn’t, and gradually I integrated myself into the heart and spirit of the group. And what did I discover? For starters, a bunch of very bright guys interested in pursuing issues of general and personal interest. A soft place to land after a lifetime of corporate minefields. A quiet integrity based on an infrastructure of mutual support and trust. Men bonding with men.

I doubt that we’ll ever be as easily forthcoming as many women—probably due to a lifetime of stereotypical conditioning, and while that may be construed as a politically incorrect statement, I think it’s true. My wife can learn a woman’s complete history including husband(s), names of children, birthplace and address simply by standing in a grocery line for ten minutes. Obviously I’m exaggerating to lighten this up a little, but there is something to it. I flat out don’t think men are as easily comfortable discussing personal issues as women. But that’s fine as long as we try.

And we do.

That’s what Men’s Wisdom Works is all about.

And now I’m grateful for the experience.

So here’s to you, Steve, Dan, Dick, Dave, Patrick, Bruce, Mike, Larry, Jim, TS, Lowell, and Lee. My life has been enriched by knowing you.

Long may we run.