Feel Sorry For Men

They're white. They're privileged. And they're suffering.

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It was just another ordinary day for the vice president of a medium-sized manufacturing company. Meetings, lunch, more meetings, then a short, 15-minute break to entertain wild yet persistent thoughts of leaving it all behind. Hop in the sports car, crank up the tuneage, do 95 on the highway all the way to the Florida coastline, where he'd build a fine future for himself collecting seashells and working on his tan.

He got about as far as the Mayfield Heights exit off Interstate 271 when he called Jim Shelley, director of the Men's Resource Center in Kirtland. For Shelley, the VP was another distraught white guy on the line, one in a litany of distraught white guys futilely searching for the drive-thru window that dishes out the Meaning of Life.

"There's no 'men's hotline,' but we get all kinds of calls," says Shelley, an advocate for that ever-popular whipping boy known as the middle-aged man. "We get calls from men seeking shelter . . . We get a lot of calls -- and these aren't bums -- from men who might be having problems, men coming out of alcohol or drug rehab programs, a lot of calls from men experiencing child custody issues."

The center's director since it opened at Lakeland Community College in 1996, Shelley had no sooner taken the job than he found himself on the receiving end of endless tales of white-male woe. Though his degree is in marketing, not counseling -- and he runs career workshops, not therapy sessions -- he seems to be a clearinghouse for desperate, eleventh-hour cries for help made by a demographic that lives in mortal dread of asking for a handout.

Men's crisis meters don't go off unless their troubles are job-related, says Shelley of his unexpected role as a listening ear. "If a man loses his job, he will seek help. He may not if his personal life is in a shambles, but he will if his job is at risk."

With testosterone-friendly classes like "Home Brew: Beermaking for Personal Use," "Leadership Thinking for a New Millennium," and "Civil War Journal" ("Immerse yourself in the major battles of the Civil War in a unique setting"), the Men's Center was meant to rope in the John Does and Joe Sixpacks who have lately been avoiding college in record numbers. Led by Shelley, a classic "motivated management type" with an uncharacteristic compassionate side, it's become more of a lifeline for a displaced population than a recruitment tool.

Yet it's one of the few such centers anywhere. When Shelley took charge, he had to start from scratch, unable to find any model for outreach to the middle-aged man.

"There's a tendency in society today to look at men as the problem," Shelley says, reciting one of his favorite platitudes. "Our premise is that men have problems, too." (By men, he means white dudes, the black man's burden being another story altogether.)

Unlike the school's Women's Center, the Men's Center avoids the touchy-feely, chairs-in-a-circle approach, which women tend to love but men tend to run screaming from, says Shelley. Any dose of self-exploration is downed with a chaser of guy stuff --discussion of sports, work, and beer.

"We had some programs that looked at father-child relationships, and as part of that, we showed Field of Dreams," he says. "Prior to the movie, we had a counselor talking about father-son issues as they relate to the movie. If we had just had a program featuring only the counselor, nobody would have come."

Can such a service have any real impact on men, or is it just another (exclusionary) way of marketing to them? The jury is still out. But no matter how awkward an effort it might seem, it's still an attempt to reach out to a population claiming to be doing fine on its own, thank you, then committing suicide at four times the rate of women.

Even Shelley, man-at-large, felt a little sheepish at a Men's Center guest presentation made by a more introspective men's group -- at least when the time came to stand in a circle and hold hands with other guys. But the session broke down some boundaries.

"Everybody talked a little bit, told their story," he recalls. "We didn't have any structure, but somehow these things developed.

"One guy talked about how he had been living in what he called 'the Flatlands' his entire life, bought the success thing hook, line, and sinker. He found out through a family crisis that he had not really been living. Another guy talked about a nervous breakdown he'd had, another about alcohol abuse."

It might not have been a revolutionary moment in gender studies, but it was a step up from clinking glasses and getting all teary-eyed during a sudden-death touchdown moment.

What's next? A quilting bee? A heartfelt round of "Kumbaya"?

No one's denying that white men have problems. But historically they've always gotten the lion's share. So why should they get the lamb's share, too? They're the status quo -- now we should make them a subgroup? And when is such help constructive, and when is it a ham-handed, politically correct reconditioning of the old-boy network?

Before Lakeland incorporated the Men's Center as part of its community outreach, Paul Pavlik leafed through the brochure for the Women's Center, hoping to find career classes he could take. But he didn't sign up, thinking that men weren't welcome there.

So when he first heard about the new center, he perked up. "[Programming] doesn't have to be factionalized," he remarks. "But society, that's the way it is now. When you see a sign, it always says 'Women's Resource Center.' It doesn't say 'People's Resource Center.' So why not a Men's Center?"

He came to the center not only for the Job Shop, a networking program primarily for middle-aged men, but also for the companionship, having quit his sales job six years ago to be a round-the-clock caregiver for his mother, who has Alzheimer's disease.

The social interaction "was a big part of it," he says. "They gave you specific job-hunting skills, but they also gave you emotional support. If somebody was telling their story, they'd always stress the positive aspects. And there's nothing better than keeping everything in a positive light, even if everything else is emotionally draining."

Not one to rely on rude awakenings, Pavlik had already taken some steps to stay relevant in the job market. A former accountant who'd been downsized by the Eaton Corporation in 1980, he took courses in law and real estate, preparing to work as a real estate appraiser after his mother dies.

"When I graduated (30 years ago), a liberal arts degree was worth more than it is now," he says. "The company would give you the specific training you needed. But they valued people who could think. But now, it seems like you have to have specific skills, not the least of all computer skills."

Job-market shifts in the past 20 years from permanent, even lifelong positions to short-term contract work disproportionately hit middle-aged men, says Vondell Petry, head of the nonprofit career center at Tri-C West. Most of the downsized "lifers" she sees are men who haven't updated their skills, coasting along on good-paying jobs they've had for years, oblivious to the shifting tides.

"We do get women, but the people who come in from that sort of situation tend to be men," she says. "It could be that men have traditionally held more managerial positions than women."

Tom Vandermeulen, a career counselor at Lakeland, sees "the guy who's been thrown off the boat, not the guy who's doing the throwing." And a lot of those castaways are clueless.

"The job was there, they fell into it, their dad was working for a company, it was a different economy and a different way of doing things," he says. "So they don't have the skills in interviewing, they don't know how to put together a résumé, they don't know you can't go to a job interview and badmouth your last employer.

"Men have to find ways to present themselves. In the job market, being you is no longer OK. It's costing you a job, your marriage, your self-respect."

When men lose a job, it doesn't only affect them financially, contends Shelley. Particularly devastating is the social alienation they may feel, lacking the support systems that women have, in terms of both social services and meaningful relationships outside the immediate family.

"Very often, particularly at mid-life, men are so linked to their jobs, to what they do for a living," he says, "that when men experience job loss, it sets in motion all these other aspects that women tend to take care of as they go along."

Age is also a factor, the healthy economy being not so healthy for workers of both genders between 45 and 60 years old. "There's a lot of movement now, even though the unemployment rate is low -- a relatively high turnover rate," says Shelley, who notes that though the Job Shop specifically caters to men, it admits women as well. "It takes people in that age range much longer to obtain reemployment, and there aren't that many resources for the mid-life job seeker."

Rob Lagucki is one middle-aged man who harbors no illusions of security. Early on in his working life, the BFA graduate did the responsible thing, abandoning artistic ambitions for a career in printing production that he thought he would have for life.

"Growing up as a baby boomer, I learned that you're supposed to have the same job for 30 years," he says. "That's the way my father was, and that's the way I was brought up." But he was downsized twice, once when his department "got the kibosh," another time when his company was sold.

For Lagucki, the quest for the one good, solid job that will make him happy is turning into a lifelong journey, with a destination that may prove elusive. The 49-year-old husband and father of a five-year-old recently found work as a salesman for satellite weather information.

As for a mid-life crisis, Lagucki says that though he might be in the middle of an extended one, he finds the idea "kind of esoteric."

"What do I want to do when I grow up? I've already been in a couple different positions. You start freaking out at times, wondering how to actually find a way to get there."

The Men's Center helped him look on the bright side, he says. "I call Jim every once in a while to stay involved. It's kind of a sounding board, a good place to keep your head on straight, and provide you with a little bit of direction and diversification from dwelling on your own situation."

But he still feels trapped. "In my case, it's a struggle," he says. "You're starting to find yourself competing with younger people. Some of the blind ads in papers, in the classifieds, you don't really know until you get to the interview what age group they're looking for." He went on interviews for a few pharmacy sales rep positions, only to find that they were entry-level jobs for college graduates. "It was kind of weird, because I don't feel my age, anyway."

One of the best parts of the Job Shop, says Lagucki, was the open discussions over coffee and donuts, when the men shared the week's job-hunting horror stories and successes. "There were a few situations where people were really venting some hard times," he says. "You find out you're not the only one out there like that. And it was real nice when somebody did get a job. Then it was their turn to bring in the donuts."

Since all things are not equal, it's overkill to designate special services for men, says Cynthia Tatalovich, education and employment equity director for the Ohio chapter of the National Organization for Women.

"I certainly wouldn't dispute the fact that men have problems," she says. "My concern would be that they are already receiving all these benefits, and here they are again, receiving more benefits."

In the workplace, men still maintain the upper hand. Full-time women earn only about 76 percent of what full-time men earn, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics -- the gap is attributable both to pay that is lower for women than it is for men in the same job, with the same education, and to low numbers of women in high-paying fields like manufacturing, engineering, and construction.

As a group, women still meet almost every standard of oppression, says C. River Smith, a Cleveland psychologist active in both the women's and men's movements. They're the poorest heads of households, by far the highest percentage of single parents, and they hold government office in far smaller numbers than men.

"How many women are CEOs of corporations?" demands Smith. "How many pieces of art by women are hung in the art museum, how many musical compositions performed were composed by women, how many women are the head[s] of science or history departments at universities?

"In these meaning-making institutions, there's always the exception -- 'Oh, what about so-and-so?' But except for the exceptions, men are in control of all the major areas of life."

To regard men as oppressed shifts attention away from people facing real inequalities, he says, adding that he doesn't want to be involved with a men's group "unless they're making a commitment to challenge our sexism."

Without feminist consciousness, men's groups "will become boys' clubs," he warns. "We will retreat back into 'us and them.' As soon as one guy makes a statement about women and nobody challenges it, you start going down that road, because it's so comfortable. You have to have men who are willing to challenge other men."

Too often, he argues, men confuse having the upper hand with feeling that all is right with the world. "The initial notion is 'If I'm supposed to be privileged, how come I'm not happy?' The answer is that privilege doesn't really make you happy."

Barry Gordon, a Beachwood men's therapist, qualifies that idea by saying that individual men -- the foot soldiers in a patriarchy, who've historically been the first ones to get a cannonball in the gut during wartime -- are often seeing little of privilege.

"There's no question that women have been oppressed in a much more tangible way over the centuries," he says. "But the everyday man who works in the factory, who drives the truck -- most of the men that we're really talking about are not the decision makers.

"When you think about it in terms of the fact that cultures have been entirely patriarchal, it's hard to say that men have been oppressed. But when you think about it in terms of the impact on men of our cultural values, the ways that individual men have been trapped or cut off from themselves, their inability to live their lives in the ways they want to isn't that different."

But even if they lack control in the larger world, men traditionally have maintained it at home. Little more than a hundred years ago, it was still perfectly legal in some places in this country for cuckolded men to punish their unfaithful wives by bullwhipping them in the town square, says Vince Pinto, a therapist at Western Reserve Counseling in Painesville who facilitates a court-ordered anger-management program for men who batter.

Pinto doesn't need to woo his clientele with baked goods or films about baseball. However, it does take him about 10 weeks to build a relationship with the men. "We do a lot of initial challenging of their belief system and explaining how the way they were raised contributed to their uncontrollable anger," he says. "Men traditionally don't talk with a therapist. They feel that they should have the answers. It's viewed as a weakness, to turn and need help."

Female batterers, who amount to less than one-tenth of the overall number, have their own court-ordered program and generally progress much faster than men. Pinto thinks that's because their fists usually fly out of fear for their own safety rather than a deeply ingrained need for control -- and the fact that they're more attuned to talking out their problems.

Anger wasn't an issue for Cleveland firefighter Bob Gribble -- defining his place in the world was. In his line of work, he was alongside men every day, and though they had the physical strength and crucial, action-packed job that fit society's romantic ideal of masculinity, he didn't find them distant and controlling.

"I felt men were being defined unfairly, unrealistically -- I think as kind of a reaction to the women's movement," the 49-year-old battalion chief says. "I remember working with men with an incredible amount of power and sensitivity. While I've always been a supporter of women's rights, the portrayal of men as violent, uncaring, and insensitive didn't fit.

"I was working on the street with WWII and Vietnam combat veterans, older men and men my age. I learned from them not only to fight fires but to manage emergencies with an incredible compassion and sensitivity. These men weren't just embracing the idea of the sensitive male -- they'd already endorsed it, and that's what prompted me to go further."

Self-exploration has been a lifelong pursuit for Gribble, who has a postgraduate degree in psychology and counsels war veterans, firefighters, and police officers. He founded a nonprofit stress intervention group that helps hospital personnel and law enforcement officers "deal with ugly situations." So he was intrigued by the New Warriors, a mythopoetic all-male group centered around a secret rite-of-passage ceremony originally called the Wildman Weekend (now called the New Warrior Training weekend).

The group's encoded language, saturated with war and battle imagery, can be cryptic to outsiders, and as with men's lodges in an earlier day, its orchestrated mystique provokes suspicion in the larger society.

Gribble speaks guardedly of the "sacred masculine" -- a soldering of the best qualities of the sensitive male and the macho man -- and the "shadow," man's deeper, and in some cases darker and more primitive, side. "Even in an environment where there's a certain solidarity, there's parts of ourselves we're afraid to share with other people."

In 1996, Gribble embarked on one of the group's weekend adventures, to get in touch with the "warrior within." Without a mission, a warrior -- i.e., the archetypal male -- becomes dangerous, he explains. "Warriors without missions are men without a sense of identity, and without a sense of identity, all that masculine power becomes crazy, violent, and potentially destructive."

Rites of passage for men have all but disappeared today, says Gribble, whose Wildman Weekend provided a "safe container" where he would be accepted by other men.

"The only type of social initiation anymore is fraternity or gang hazing," he says. "The postmodern initiation ceremony is not only dangerous for men," but devoid of symbolism; it encourages immaturity rather than showing boys how to be men.

In the agrarian society, now nearly obsolete, the roles for men and women were well-defined, says Gribble, who continued in the New Warrior program with a men's group that meets weekly. "Boys grew up alongside of men until they got married and moved," he says. From their parents, they learned the skills they need to thrive. That changed with the Industrial Revolution.

"Men left their homes, went to the factory, and stayed there all day," says Gribble. "Now the kids are left at home; they don't see what he does, they don't have a sense of him. A young boy essentially grows up without a father and has to guess what he's supposed to do. So you have generations of boys growing up without men showing them what it means to be a man."

The farther away a man gets from his family, contends Gribble, the more he finds himself in competition with other men. "Competitiveness with other men leads to a lack of clarity, a confusion about who they are and what they're supposed to be."

Smith -- who started a consciousness- raising group called Men Against Rape, as well as a support group for sexually abused men at the Free Clinic in the 1990s -- regards Gribble's safety theory as too safe for an already exclusionary group.

"Since I already believe that the way men heal their wounds is to stop being the oppressor, I don't feel much need to get in touch with my ancient warrior," he says. "Plus, there's already too much war imagery in our culture."

Also artificial, he says, is the group's emphasis on hugging and holding hands because men are "starved for touch." Men associate sex with nurturing, and "simply having us touch each other doesn't solve the problem of why we were conditioned into this, what we need to change that pattern in ourselves." Hugging a total stranger isn't going to help. "I love hugging, but I hug people I care about," and men don't need to learn to hug everyone in sight; they need to learn about appropriately "reacting to what's very real."

Unlike Gribble, who already had meaningful relationships with men, Paul Lubben started a nondenominational men's group at the Unity Church in Westlake because he was tired of having superficial relationships with men.

"I really was fairly isolated," says the middle-aged administrator. "All your friendships tend to fall away when you're focusing on a family. My wife and I were married for many years, and I thought I was getting all my needs met [in that relationship], but that's not realistic.

"Being in a men's group, we're really able to learn to trust other men and form good friendships and relationships that aren't limited to the beer-commercial version of friendship and masculinity. Breaking out of that isolation, men have a unique perspective that other men value."

Such groups are good, but it's important that they have leaders, someone to hold men's "feet to the fire," advises Gordon. Otherwise, the talk can quickly disintegrate into beer-commercialspeak.

The idea for Lakeland's Men's Center was actually developed by a woman, Merry Ring. Ring is the director of the school's Women's Center, which is six years older than its male counterpart and has about twice the budget.

That Ring's background is in program development, not political activism, is evident in her vision for dual -- not dueling -- centers.

"We're a women's center to help women figure out what they want to be and become," says Ring. "And that's just as true for a men's center. We're not into politics, because I don't think it's a zero-sum game."

So despite the progressive thinking, the centers seem disarmingly retro in their offerings, almost to the degree of Elks Lodges and quilting bees. This summer, the Men's Center offered courses on "Becoming a Financial Planner," "Career Decisions: Strategies for Successful Change," and "How to Make Money Buying and Fixing a House." Across the hall at the Women's Center, coursework includes "Balancing Hormones Naturally"; "Beads, Buttons, and Bucks" ("Need to earn money but can't find affordable child care?" reads the description. "Want to work, but you don't have a reliable car? There is an answer! Make jewelry at home"); "Math Can Be a Foreign Language"; and "How to Go to College When You Have No Money."

Women who want to attend a Job Shop must go to the Men's Center, a gender crossing that Ring doesn't find problematic. Women's Center counselors refer women with career issues to the Men's Center, she says, and probably a third of the women at the school "have a hard time telling if they're in the Men's Center or the Women's Center." They just want the help and, unlike men, aren't afraid to ask for it.

Smith says making such presumptions, rather than unifying the genders, only deepens the gulf between them, designating who should be performing what role.

"It's very dangerous to take something that both groups need and fold that into 'If women ask for help, they can go to the Men's Center.' Women who've really been hurt by men, they're not gonna go to the career center if it's called the Men's Center. That's not being taken into account."

When pressed, Ring admits that the real reason Job Shop is in the Men's Center has more to do with a clever programming move than with cutting-edge academic thinking on separation of the sexes. When the non-profit Career Initiatives Center in downtown Cleveland folded, Lakeland wanted to pick up some of its services for displaced professionals. But "the Women's Center had a full plate, and nobody wanted to take over, so they started the Men's Center."

Not exactly a revolution in thinking. But it's getting "regular guys" like Lagucki and Pavlik talking. To psychologist Barry Gordon, that's progress, no matter how clumsy.

"When men examine themselves, they function differently in relationships, maintain a better balance in work and home life, become better spouses, better parents, and better fathers," he says. "Men and women have a seven-year gap in life span. If men could learn to take care of themselves better, it would be in all ways helpful to family life."

And when things get really good between the sexes, maybe the women can spring for donuts.

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