Number 156-157 -
In this issue:
"State of the Men" Essay
Hot Links Don't Believe the Latest Medical Study
Menletter started in 2002 - seems like a lifetime ago! I think the journal has evolved over thirteen years. I know I've mellowed a bit - and become less political, at least most of the time. More and more, I see the potential for men and women to be allies against a toxic culture and the manipulations of media and advertisers.
I'm very happy to have had this newsletter as a creative outlet, with the knowledge that at least a few people will read it. I didn't have the fantasy, or the ambition, to turn this into a major, widely-known journal. As in the men's retreats I've attended, I think the best work is done person-to-person. We're on a multi-generational path, and we won't get to see results of much of the good we do. That's up to our children, and other young people, down through the next several generations. It's inspiring enough to know that we do the best we can every day, and that a few people will notice that.
Thanks to everyone who has read even one issue of Menletter. I have all of you in my mind and heart every time I sit down at the keyboard.
A roomful of retired folks listened raptly to Kate Braestrup, the chaplain of Maine's Game Warden service. She recounted fascinating stories about the service in general: The joy of a good outcome in a search-and-rescue mission to find a lost hunter or a lost child; the searing sorrow of a recovery mission of someone who has drowned or frozen to death in the wilds of Maine.
What does Kate do in all of this? She listens. She lends a hand. She arranges for social service, for grief counseling. Her "congregation" includes both the visitors to Maine's forests and the men who try to keep people safe and within the law.
Did I say men? Yeah. In answer to a question from the audience, Kate acknowledged that in the entire Game Warden service, there is one female warden. One. Not that there isn't explicit recruiting. Many factors play into this; the result is that the pool of applicants is small.
But there's another thing. Kate said that the kinds of things wardens do - to serve and protect - are men's ways of expressing love.
Serve and protect. The motto has become a wry turn of phrase in recent stories about overreaction and brutality of police officers and the militarization of police departments. But taken on its face, the phrase does characterize most cops, soldiers, and game wardens. The men in the Warden Service serve and protect (that is, express their love for) Maine's rich forest environment and the humans and animals that inhabit or visit it.
Serve and protect. Most of us aren't cops or soldiers or game wardens. How do we serve and protect? I'm thinking we do it in many ways that aren't immediately obvious. Shoveling snow. Teaching a kid to ride a bike, (and later, to drive) and about road safety. Cleaning gutters. Rewiring a lamp. Putting up storm windows, or outdoor holiday decorations. Keeping the car and home in good repair. Hauling stuff to the dump. Teaching sports fundamentals, and sportsmanship. Rototilling a garden. Doing the taxes. For some of us primary earners, just going to work every day. It's easy to minimize much of this - most of us men are fairly modest. But it's also easy to see the "serve" part in all this. As for the "protect" part, imagine if these and the other things we do weren't done, or were done carelessly.
Serve and protect. Of course, not all men do this, or do it all the time, or do it well. Women also serve and protect, in law enforcement, the military, and warden services, and in the more mundane ways I've mentioned above. And more and more men engage in nurturing and domestic activities that until fairly recently were part of women's domain.
Serve and protect. It does sound kinda macho, doesn't it? My guess (and I think I'm right) is that more men than women would characterize a large part of the mundane things we do for our families or communities as serving and protecting.
Serve and protect. It would be nice if we men, and people who know us, recognized the everyday things we do to make a better world. But the phrase can also be an inwardly felt but mostly subconscious commitment that informs our sense of self as men. And it really, basically, boils down to love. Framing "serve and protect" as love turns us outward and puts that sense of self into a more intimate relationship to our families, to our communities, to the world.
My Anniversary "State of the Men" Essay
Remembering Iron John. I ran across this Slate article from 2006, which takes a new look, 16 years after it was first published, at Robert Bly's first and chief work on men and the men's movement from a mythopoetic perspective.
The author, Jess Row, starts out by citing two recent (in 2006) books that take different paths to conclude that gender equality is a "pernicious myth, and that our culture's attempts to prove otherwise have produced individual unhappiness and social breakdown over the last 40 years." Both books espouse a more traditional household in which men are men and women are women, and they're hard-wired that way.
Row goes on: "What's most distressing about these books, however, isn't that they play on ancient prejudices and dredge up empty stereotypes, but that they aren't being met by a fusillade of other, better books - books that examine contemporary relationships and gender roles without panic, dread, or shame. This is particularly true, of course, when it comes to books about men. . . . We need, in other words, more books like Iron John."
Row analyzes the content of Bly's book and its cogent message about masculinity and society, couched in a fairy tale from the Grimm Brothers. If it's been a while since you read Iron John, or if you've never read it, Row will walk you through its main points, serving as both fan and critic.
Iron John was revolutionary in its time, but the book, and the "men's movement" some sought to engender based on it, seem to have had no lasting effect on the vast majority of men:
[R]eading it today reveals how much American culture has changed over the last decade and a half. The "men's movement" was briefly the subject of controversy among feminists and derision among conservatives, but what killed it, more than anything, was simply that it was too easy a target for satire. This may have been a necessary corrective in the short term - Bly himself, with his colorful vests and lute-strumming, was always a little ridiculous as a public figure - but along the way the seriousness of his argument was lost, and 16 years later his questions are still unanswered. . . . [T]he result is that we still lack a basic vocabulary for, say, the experience of a stay-at-home father, or the difference (from a man's point of view) between flirtation and harassment at work. If we don't find a way of emulating Bly's generosity of spirit and willingness to risk truth-telling, we're going to remain stuck with recycled arguments and archetypes, lacking a language that applies to our own era.
The entire essay is worth reading, if only for its lack of gender-war polemics (still going strong at many men-oriented websites). It's a clear-headed assessment of what's still lacking in our discussions about manhood and how men and women can live in a more harmonious atmosphere.
We might say that, in the years since the 1990 publication of Iron John, or since the 2006 essay by Jess Row, or since I've been writing about this stuff, nothing good of much substance has happened in the world of men. Yes, we change more diapers and spend more time with the kids. Our life span has crept up closer to that of women (at least in the US). But prostate cancer research is still underfunded compared to breast cancer research. Advertisers and sit-com writers still feel free to ridicule men. Men are imprisoned in far greater numbers than women, and overall are more often apt to be victims of violence. Dangerous jobs are still held mostly by men. Divorce laws and custody arrangements are still tilted mostly away from men.
It's impossible to assign blame for any of this. Except that some folks would say we have only ourselves to blame - male victims of violence are harmed by other men; men commit more crimes, etc. - in addition to all the awful stuff we do to women.
And it is still argued that men, especially white men, are in a privileged class and have it pretty easy compared to women. Although partly true in some quarters but not entirely accurate, the argument is hard to deny. But reasonable dialog is nearly impossible in the toxic atmosphere we all breathe.
Something's wrong. Men and women are both victims of corporate hegemony (and religious fundamentalism) affecting our politics and our social values. It is profitable for both men and women to be not only denied full personhood but to be objectified and set against each other.
Who now has Bly's generosity of spirit and willingness to tell the truth? A lot of us, perhaps, both men and women. But our voices are drowned out in the crushing clamor of commerce and religious orthodoxy.
It's a grim picture. But the voices are still there. Still, small voices, of men and women who love and respect each other, and which refuse to go away. Voices quietly telling our friends and our children and our partners that they have the minds and the values to think for themselves and not be defined by, and sucked down into, the cesspool of popular culture.
We will persevere. We may not change much, but we keep on keeping on. There can be no change without at least that.
Don't Believe the Latest Medical Study
If we follow, or don't follow, popular press advice about the latest dietary or supplement fad, we often notice that if we wait a few months almost all of the advice is reversed.
I was tickled by this article, which shows that our impressions have a basis in fact:
So many studies are flawed in one or more ways: small samples, confounding factors, not running double-blind studies.
I've written about this before, but it's nice to have some heft behind it.