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.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A View from a Newer Member--Frederick Carl De Troia

I faced a significant adjustment to my life when I retired twenty years ago.  My time had been filled by raising children, enjoying a fulfilling careers and pursuing other interests as time permitted. Now there is more time available. How do we fill it? I am unique to the Men’s Wisdom Works as I was able to move to Asheville in 1995. Before I made the leap of faith (very early retirement) I talked to friends, who because of their careers, had to deal with too much or too little in time. My question to each was what do you do with your time? Their insights helped my transition to Asheville.

I chose to teach at AB Tech for 17 years. It was a post-retirement/not really fully retired decision.  The teaching culminated in my being awarded a teacher of the year award in 2010. The recognition was nice and definitely a little embarrassing. I thoroughly enjoyed my tenure at AB Tech.  All good things must come to an end.

Here I am again having to redefine myself. When I was in college the introductory question was always “What is your major?” When working “What do you do?” In retirement the response is “I used to ….” Who we are is never as simple as our profession or our major or our avocation. The beginning of our latter year’s redefinition can be found in what we do now, what we care about now, who we love now and what we commit to now. MWW became the source of my next redefinition of self and my contributions.

Once again, what to do with my time? OLLI, The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, at UNCA seemed like a good idea. I sign up for some classes; nice to be on the other side of the podium. I checked out OLLI’s various SIGs (Special Interest Groups) and I I discover something called Men’s Wisdom Works and think; Hey I am smart; maybe not wise; I am having fun; I am engaged in the community; but I am not spending any time with men of my own age. I am kind of a loner.

So I join the waiting list to form the newest MWW group.  There are 10 of us attending our first meeting. Each of the men has the “what the hell am I doing here look about them”. In short we are all cautious about this and the people sitting at the table.  

As time progresses we get to know each other. Some are facing very difficult issues with either their health or the health of their significant others. We are respectful.  I truly like the members of my group. No one is taking an ego trip on me.  I look forward to seeing our members. When I leave for the summer the one thing I miss is our weekly gatherings. I am saddened that one of our members has to leave the group because of his wife’s’ health issues.  It has taken a while to find our way trying to figure out what works for us.  Now, we gather weekly, twice monthly for our formal meetings on the off Wednesdays those of us who can gather at various venues for some social time together. At our last meeting it was pointed out that we had been together for 10 months. I am fortunate that the this group of men are all comfortable in their skins. We are a diverse group who are beginning to laugh together, care about the various pursuits of each other and are supportive of each other.

While we are still maturing as a group it is an activity that I am happy that I availed myself of. The investment of my most precious resource (time) in MWW Group IX has been rewarding. Fortunately, I have a wonderful wife who has supported this activity.  While Group IX continues to chart its own path I enjoy each step of the journey.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Farewell our friend, our brother Stephen Jones

When a friend asked what I thought of the idea of organizing several Men’s Wisdom Works groups through the Reuter Center (now OLLI), I had lunch with him to encourage his initiative but to say decisively, I’d be the last to join. “It was a good idea but not for me.”   He received a similar response to his request for me to write a blog.


Not only did I join Group #3 several years ago, but I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the concept and the group itself.  In fact, I don’t know how I would have gotten through the last fourteen months without these men.  Being with a dozen men whom I like and trust has meant so much to me.  We listen, think, respond, and support each as much as we can.  When one of our group died those in town were able to be together at his memorial service.  

About a year ago, I went through radiation and chemotherapy for terminal cancer and relished their personal support plus many rides to the hospital; what a difference that made for me and my wife.   So now I’m writing this blog to encourage others to consider the idea as an opportunity to open your heart to others and to broaden your circle of trusted friends.  I doubt I’ll blog often but who knows?