I was born and raised in Southern Ohio. The family farm was the centerpiece of my formative years. Uncles, Aunts, Grandparents, a Great Grandmother, parents, two younger siblings, and half a dozen younger cousins made up our clan; all whose lives were touched by the farm.
Looking back on those times I remember many wondrous and beautiful moments. The incomparable smell of freshly turned soil, the checkerboard effect of 100’s of bales of hay spread over 40 acres of bottom land viewed from atop the ridge. The sweet intoxicating aroma of freshly mown hay. The slinky sly fox that came to the apple orchard near the house in the early morning to snatch fallen apples. The exotic smell of the smoke from the smokehouse where the hams were curing. The rumbling, thunder-like sound of potatoes being dumped from gunny sacks into the potato bin in the cellar. Secretly listening to the Cincinnati Reds baseball games on a crystal/wire on WLW radio with broadcaster Waite Hoyt’s voice, promoting Burger Beer, putting me to sleep. Hiding under the blankets with a flashlight, reading my favorite book “Red Randall over Tokyo” when I was supposed to be asleep. The daily weather forecasting done by looking for clouds, remembering the “Red sky in morning, sailors take warning; Red sky at night, sailors delight” method. Looking each evening towards the west for that “bank in the clouds”. I still love those smells and sights and sounds (and memories) when they come into my life today.
I have other memories. Memories that have shaped me as much as the one’s above. They are about what was involved in transitioning from being a boy to a man. The older men in my life taught me very early on, that if I wanted to belong, I needed to work. I learned that to work like a man, was to be treated like a man, regardless of gender. The men of my clan also engaged in an incredible hazing process. A hazing process that included primarily hard work (more than one of my aunt’s boyfriends didn’t make the “cut” because he couldn’t last an entire day working on the farm), sarcasm, put downs, ridiculing, physical violence, mocking, and scapegoating. I imagine that is why I am so sensitive to this world we are living in where that is the standard form of communication set by our current leader.
I learned that to ask for help meant that you were either stupid or incompetent. To show pain meant that you were weak, any sign of which made things only worse. That to touch a man, except for the rare shaking of hands was forbidden. I learned that to compliment a child or tell them you were proud of them, or that you loved them would “spoil them.” I learned that being stoic, regardless of what was happening, meant you were strong. I was taught that if you made a mistake, to hide it. I learned that resisting, talking back, fighting for oneself only made things worse. I once told someone, when they were asking about bruises that they saw, about the beating I had been given by one of the men. Their response was “you are a liar, he wouldn’t do that, he knows you are a bleeder”, and then I caught a whooping for lying.
I don’t believe that it was any worse for me than the men who did these things. They learned it from somewhere. I don’t believe that it was any worse for me than for any of my siblings or cousins. To this very day on the rare occasions that we gather, we only hint and laugh of our early years.
I believe that women were treated the same way. That was simply how people I grew up with interacted. I do know that it influenced me.
I was born with hemophilia (a bleeding disorder that was uncontrollable until I became an adult) and grew up with stern warnings from as early as I can remember, to not do anything to get hurt. Of course, with the older men beating on me from time to time, that was difficult to do. So, my survival process was to get quiet, not fight back, not resist, hide the evidence, having learned that if I didn’t do those things it just prolonged the experience.
I carried this survival technique into school and my adult life. I played (badly, to be sure) some college sports where all those lessons I grew up came in very handy.
A positive outcome is that I always had, and still have, a sensitivity for, and the desire to defend, as best I can, those who, like me, were abused. When I taught school, all of my classes were full. While other teaches would have classes of 20-25, mine would be 35. When I finally asked why, the counselors told me that they sent me the kids no one else wanted, because they knew I would take them in.
I felt for the Native Americans, I felt for the victims of Hitler’s pogroms. I felt for the underdog. I still do. I could have very easily turned into one of the bullying abusive kind of men I grew up with. I imagine my fear of “getting hurt” and bleeding to death, was a big factor in my not being one. Sort of.
I did have an incredible sarcastic streak in me. (That word, by the way, comes the Greek word ‘Sarkasmos’, meaning to ‘tear flesh’). “Anger coming out of a small hole, followed by a smile”; or “hitting someone with a velvet covered hammer”, are other descriptive terms that explain the effect of sarcasm on the victim.
As a practitioner of that art, I was told, and took some great pride in hearing, that I was better than Don Rickles (for those of you who remember him). Sarcasm was my “coin of the realm”. You would have been the target if I liked you. If I didn’t like you, I would say nothing.
The turning point? A young lady I was talking to suddenly burst into tears one day and asked, “Why do you hate me, every time I talk to you, you make fun of me or put me down.” I was stunned. She actually was one of my very favorite people. I said, “I was just teasing”, and thought, “boy, does she have a problem, she has no sense of humor at all!!” As that day went on, I began to realize that I had no idea how to connect to people without teasing and sarcasm. Wow. Thank you Cheryl.
So, I began a process of trying to figure out how to connect in real ways with the people that I cared about. It wasn’t (and still isn’t) easy for me. But I did get better. I became (and still am) a student of the communication process.
I made lots of progress. At some point in time, I realized I had learned how to connect, in real ways with women, but still couldn’t with men. For some unknown reason, I wanted to be able to. To fix that, I attended a famous men’s program with the express purpose of learning how to be as vulnerable with men as I was, by then, with women. Before the program the owners and leader of the experience, called several times to ask me why I was coming, and I told them “I want to learn how to be as real with men as I am with women.” I had the sense that a real, vulnerable, authentic connection with men, and only men, could offer me some of what I was looking for.
My experience? If you have ever watched the movie, “Platoon”, that is what my experience was like. The hazing that was a key part of their program, (I don’t know if it still is) was a replication of my growing up experience. I left after three hours of the emotional beating that we men who were attending for the first time endured. Somewhere inside of me I had apparently made the decision that I would not be part of a relationship where that kind of hazing was the norm, ever again. I was told later that after that first evening, all of that harassment, ridicule, confrontations, and nastiness stopped. I was told that the reason the organization used that hazing process was to “break men down”, “take away their defenses” and by doing so “force men to become vulnerable and real”.
I told them I knew there was another way. At the time my wife and I owned a workshop business and we began putting together programs that assume that we all want to be authentic and real and that we all want to know how to be vulnerable, and if we can’t it is because we just don’t know how. That has led to creating, hosting and participating in workshops where men gather, without any of the hazing energy, but one of unconditional acceptance and safety.
I spent part of last week with just such a group. Five men, who meet twice a year for the expressed purpose of learning and practicing how to be with other men in real ways, invited me to join them and help facilitate their process of being together. They are titans in their chosen professions. Some are retired. Some are active. Coming together and connecting without all the hazing. Without the put-downs. Without the sarcasm and mocking and making fun of being used as the prevailing energy of their relationship. The experience was one where realness was applauded, tears were shared, fears exposed, doubts spoken, brokenness admitted, loneliness held, appreciations spoken, and love expressed, repeatedly.
A telling moment to me was when at dinner, someone asked the other men, “If you could have a day with anyone, who would it be?” Each man, called out the name of another man they would choose. Not a woman. A man. That doesn’t mean that they are anti-women, not at all. If you knew them you’d not doubt that. But I would guess as is true for woman, it takes a man to understand, fully, what being a man is like. That gathering gave me what the older men of my childhood might have given me, if they would have known how.
To all the men with whom I have shared those times and rooms, thank you. To too small of a degree, everyone in my life has since has benefited from our gatherings. I hope, especially, that my son and my grandsons will have benefited. I hope that, in finding out “how to be with men”, I have given them a small measure of what my ancestors would have given me, if they could have.
“Boys will be boys” is often used in a derisive manner. In my experience over these last twenty years working with and being with men, if given half a chance, “Boys will be boys”, becomes “Boys to Men”, if shown how. It is never too late to learn.