This does not include the film clips and my comments on them, but the most touching clip, from Antwone Fisher, is far more effective visually than the dialogue would be. You would have to be there. Also I'm sure the spoken version wandered widely from the prepared text. But feel free to do whatever you will with it. - Frank Pittman
To purchase a DVD or audio-CD versions of this presentation,
call 800-241-7785. The video versions do include the film clips. Session #753-006.
WHAT ARE MEN FOR ANYWAY?
Frank Pittman, M.D.
June 28, 2003, Reno, Nevada
Smart Marriages 7th Annual Conference
Last year Sal Minuchin introduced me as "one of the more promising members of the younger generation of family therapists." And I am just a kid. However, I’ll be 68 next week and I’vealready had the first intimations of my mortality. Last November in Florence, after a 14 course Thanksgiving dinner, I had a heart attack and an emergency angioplasty. After a lifetime of wanting an Italian body part, I got an Italian Teflon stent, a sports model made by the Ferrari people. I pondered my mortality and the purpose of my life, realizing I had things left to do, more of the life cycle to traverse and comment upon, more wisdom to accumulate, and more of my life experience to invest in my grandchildren. I realized that my life from here on would be led only in part for the immeasurable pleasure of just living it, but mostly for the grandchildren.
In THE HOURS, the dying Ed Harris tells MerylStreep, "Mrs. Dalloway, Sometimes I think I’m staying alive just for you." Streep indignantly retorts, "That’s what people do. They stay alive for one another." I was staying alive for my (five, soon seven) grandchildren.
I recuperated fine. Then, six months after my heart attack, we went out to our Colorado mountain cabin in the forest bordering Rocky Mountain National Park. Though the trail into the Wild Basin leaves from our driveway, I hadn’t hiked in six months and Betsy didn’t want met o go off into the mountains alone. Our houseguest, Susan Adams, a therapist I have long supervised, was visiting with her prize show dogs, and she set off with me toward a waterfall 3 miles away.
About a half mile up the deserted, still snow covered trail, Susan whispered to me, "Frank, there’s a bear behind me." She had felt the bear’s breath on her leg. I turned to face a 500-pound black bear. My heart did not stop. Susan, who runs six miles a day, specializes in treating criminals and, even at 5 foot 1 and 110 pounds, is unafraid of anything, was elated at seeing a bear face to face after two fruitless trips with her husband to Alaska to see wildlife.
She wanted to give the bear an apple. I thought not. I remembered that my far tougher sister, encountering a bear outside her house in the North Carolina mountains, pulled out her camera and flashed it in his face until he ran away. Unfortunately, we hadn’t brought a camera.
Instead of either fight or flight (and flight would have been more my style), I thought back to reading THE WORST CASE SCENARIO HANDBOOK, which said: "Don’t feed him, don’t look him in the eye, don’t hit him, don’t pet him, and especially don’t run away. If he attacks fall into a fetal position and play dead. If he starts eating you hit him in the snout with a stick. If not, just pretend he’s not there and walk, with all deliberate speed, away from him." Or was that what you were supposed to do if you ran into a mountain lion? I made my best guess and informed Susan, who after this many years of supervision, assumed I knew what the bear would do and what we were supposed to do. We walked hurriedly up hill on the snowy trail.
The bear followed, staying about 30 feet behind us. We looked around occasionally, avoiding his eyes; he was still there. I expected him to attack at any minute. Susan could not outrun the bear, but she could, as the old story goes, outrun me. She and I both knew that if the bear attacked, I would have to wrestle him, and I practiced that in my mind. I knew my first step, shoving my hiking stick into his snout, but I couldn’t figure out my second step.
I pondered the unfairness of being the man, the one who was expected to wrestle the bear. I thought back to a quote about men from my old friend Betty Friedan: "Men weren’t really the enemy---they were fellow victims suffering from an outmoded masculine mystique that made them feel unnecessarily inadequate when there were no bears to kill." And I was thinking "No. I am expected to be the hero here and I’m not up to it, but I must die trying as I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t save Susan from the bear.....Or maybe I could just have a heart attack and escape the responsibility." I tried to get into an heroic posture but, I realized later, I kept Susan between the bear and me. Nonetheless, I learned one of life’s most useful skills over the next hour: how to trudge along and pretend there is not a 500 pound bear 30 feet behind you.
After 1.3 miles uphill through snow without stopping for a breath, the bear got bored with us and wandered off. Susan said then that she wasn’t scared because she knew I’d take care of it. I was scared because I wasn’t at all sure I could take care of it. But after a while, this parade up the mountain stopped being an emergency and became the life I was leading. I remember noticing some wildflowers peeking through the May snow.
I had not had another heart attack during this adventure, so I knew I never would again. I even concluded that I was now immortal. But if there was ever any question about the matter, what I felt in that situation did not matter. What a man feels may have no connection to what a man does. As Meryl Streep says, we men lead our lives for other people, always trying to play the hero and denying what it feels like to be us. Men have been raised to do their duty, without complaint, without obvious emotions (except anger of course), as we go to our deaths proving our masculine fearlessness and selflessness. But how is a boy to grow up without knowing the part that goes unspoken, what it feels like to be a man leading our lives for other people and feeling that it is forbidden to speak what it is we feel? A boy can see what a man does, or what a man is supposed to do, but he can only learn from a man what it feels like to be a man. Sometimes it can be scary.
Two weeks after the bear encounter, I woke up early one Saturday morning to find I had a splitting headache and rubbery legs---like the final stages of mad cow disease. I looked for Betsy and found her on the bathroom floor incoherent. I tried to go to the telephone and couldn’t walk. I didn’t know what was wrong. I didn’t think anyone hated us enough to poison us. Betsy muttered something about food poisoning and passed out. Again it was my job to save us. So I crawled and tried to punch out, with rubbery fingers, our son Frank IV’s phone number. He lives five minutes away. Mostly I got wrong numbers until Frank’s mother in law answered. I whispered from the floor "Frank Pittman" and she asked who was calling and I said "Frank Pittman" and she asked who I wanted to talk with and I said "Frank Pittman" and she grumbled something about a crank call and hung up. I called back again and again---I was sinking fast---she recognized my voice. I then passed out, strangely comfortable that my son would come to the rescue.
Frank came to the house, put some clothes onus and got us into an ambulance. Frank and his wife Gaybie were still in the house when they got sick too. They tried to escape, and collapsed on the driveway. The neighbors, who had been watching this circus, called a second ambulance.
Pretty soon we were all four being reoxygenated in hyperbaric chambers over the next two days. Meanwhile, the gas company and the fire department disconnected the badly vented pool heater that was the source of the carbon monoxide that almost killed us. The moral of this story is simple: make sure your children live very close to you and want to keep you alive.
It also helps if your in-laws recognize you instantly.
I no longer felt immortal, but it had been a good two weeks of immortality. I was forced to face the sad fact that men are raised to die, to risk their lives for their women and children, their country, their team, and particularly for their heroism and masculinity. They are raised to think as little as possible about what they feel as they just do their duty.T hey must not value the experience of their lives or they might not be willing to risk life so stolidly. My son as a nationally ranked triathlete had long been the hero in the family, and we relied on him once again, but even here in my dotage I wasn’t done yet. I still had my uses, and most of them were exceedingly pleasant and not remotely dangerous.
I pondered the matter of masculinity. The major difference between boys and girls, men and women, is that both were raised by women, one being told this is what you will become and the other being told this is what you will not become. I know full well that women can be president, prime minister, pope or God. I don’t think we are from different planets, or even different time zones. I don’t think there is enough biological difference between men and women to make a gender out of. But we make much of the difference. We get ourselves up to announce our genders. We play out rules and roles that exaggerate the minimal differences. And yet, in the end, there is nothing a man can do that a woman can’t, except be a father.
Women, whether they like it or not, are largely irrelevant to the issue of masculinity: it’s about boys and fathers, and maybe grandfathers and uncles. Masculinity must be learned from other men, or it will be a travesty of hypermasculine impersonation. Woman can’t instill it but they can shoot it down, and many men are so terrified by a woman’s anger, that is all it takes for a sex change operation.
Carol Gilligan, IN A DIFFERENT VOICE, found that while a mother teaches her daughters what it looks like, sounds like, smells like and feels like to be a woman, a mother can only teach a son how to follow the rules, how to compete with the other boys, and how to seduce a woman into taking care of him and finish him off to her specifications once he gets away from his mother. Men who are impersonating masculinity may turn into Controllers, Contenders, Philanderers, always replaying the tasks and competitions that define boys as men. But a boy needs to learn how to be a man who feels like a man. Obviously that can only be learned from men, not from competing with the other boys who are faking it the best they can, not from the endless game of seducing and abandoning women who, briefly, might still see the poor guy as a hero. So boys must know up close what it looks and sounds and feels and smells like to be a man. And the less differentiated that is from women, then the more together and the more real the man will become, the more compassionate and the more secure. He will not have to put on a macho show in order to prove to anybody who cares whether he has a fourth leg on his ychromosome. In the presence of a guy who is not busy "proving" his masculinity, all exaggerated masculine strivings then are exposed as the travesty they are. The secret of masculinity is how little of it it takes.
A guy who failed to learn the reality behind the macho show may go through life making masculine noises and smells, hoping to prove something he doubts. Without permission to feel from a father or the culture, his life and emotional experience may remain less important to him than his demonstration of macho willingness to sacrifice his life for his masculinity. He may need to be a hero, or need to have a woman reassure him that he is one.
Some of these sleeping men may feel the need to be the boss. Some of them (not just those in Afghanistan) need to prove that they speak for God and woman is ordered by God to remain silent, remain covered, or just submit. Some even define masculinity in terms of authority or superiority over women. (And there are religions which encourage women to stop scaring men, so men can feel like gods. Obviously this doesn’t work well for marriage. When a man tries to bolster his masculinity by winning at his marriage, he’ll look like an idiot and his marriage will look like a war zone. Most of what men learn to do to prove or display masculinity is incompatible with making a woman happy.
Marriage is a partnership that should be an exercise in equality. To be marriage, rather than a prolonged power struggle or anxiety attack, a relationship must be equal, total and permanent. If women must be equal by definition (in power, money, wisdom, authority, etc), then men can’t follow a model of gender relations based on male power and authority. Men can’t be, like the pigs in ANIMAL FARM, more equal than others. Violence or threats of violence, secrets and lies, infidelity or threats of infidelity, hierarchy or threats of hierarchy are all illegitimate power plays that unbalance the relationship. But men learn best about the equality of marriage by observing it work, not by observing it not work or by justifying its failure.
But to remain in families, men must make women happy. Many, maybe most divorces these days, center on the complaint that "he didn’t make me happy," "we were not soul mates." Soul mates Billy Bob Thornton and Angelina Jolie got matching tattoos and wore vials of one another’s blood on chains around their necks. This was his sixth marriage, but they were soul mates for months before the divorce, which is about average. The soul mate concept of marriage that works automatically without skills or effort makes the inevitable, healthy conflict of marriage (which is the real business of marriage) seem like a defect, maybe even proof that this is the wrong marriage.
We are in a period of transition in the expectations of men. On TV we are not sure men are very useful, so we want them to be decorative status symbols. Character, which is necessary to keep marriage together for a lifetime, is not considered sexy these days, rippling abdominals are. Millionaire assets, gym cut bodies and Olympic status sexual calisthenics are considered the prerequisites for a man to make a woman happy. Men are still required to wrestle bears, but nothing must ever be more important that a woman’s feelings. If he fails to make her gloriously, orgasmically happy, then she will surely be miserable unless she gets a divorce before Saturday night. And in the event of divorce she usually gets to decide what his value is to the kids and how much involvement he will be allowed to have with them.
What are we raising men to become: a guy who can make a woman happy, or an equal partner to a woman? A hero who risks his life for macho glory? Or a guy who does his job and makes his contribution? A guy who makes a macho display for fun or profit? A consumer of life’s goodies, a partaker of life’s thrills in the pursuit of narcissistic "happiness"? Or a father, a man who nurtures?
Stepfathers are no more interchangeable with fathers than stepmothers are interchangeable with mothers. The men who parade through a mother’s bedroom are not the same as fathers. A father’s relationships with his children exists separately from his relationship with their mother. But a child stands between a mother and stepfather. When stepfathers come in it triggers crises as disruptive as when fathers leave. Men in families have far more crucial functions than making a woman happy, but he doesn’t get to perform those crucial functions unless he does make a women happy (and a woman doesn’t get to perform her crucial functions unless she makes a man happy.) Strange that something as vital as marriage and parenting is dependent on something as fragile and ephemeral as happiness.
We know what happens to children of divorce: half of them lose their fathers altogether. Men who expect to make some new woman happy while still being a parent to another woman’s child is in for a rude awakening. Women who expect men to bring them happiness while they storm, pout or rage are in for some disappointment. They are bypassing the chance to create an equal partnership that might work for a lifetime to permit them both to make themselves happy.
But it is worse than that: in a divorce kids typically lose half their family. Far more than half of children of divorce lose a grandfather and half their uncles, half of their male models, half of the men who are bound by blood and family ties to love them and show them how to be men. Children of divorce may have to put up with any number of men who are connected to their mothers (and such men are likely to be the boy’s mortal enemy, showing off to the single mother how powerful he can be at straightening out her fatherless son), but half the men that should be there to lead the boy into manhood are gone with the divorce.
WHAT ARE GRANDPARENTS FOR?
My mother’s father was a poet and newspaper editor who died of kidney failure and alcoholism when she was two. He left behind her naïve adulation, my grandmother’s anger at his selfishness and a book of his writings, through which I knew him well. As he was going blind from his drinking, he had the hubris to compare himself to Milton.
My father’s father was an undertaker who took me under his wing when Dad went to WWII, so we would be proud of him. I wasn’t, I resented him for going. Mother, my sister and I moved in with her mother, whom I adored. I had a cot in the breakfast room. Across the street at the funeral home, Pops gave me another room next to the caskets. He taught me to barbecue, and took me out of school to hunt silently with him in the woods. He was not a patient man. He was used to dealing with customers who stayed where he put them and never talked back. And he revealed little of himself, but he was the man who was there for me. He had nothing more important to do in life than show me his world. I still wear his high school ring. Pops died when I was 11. Dad came back from the Pacific but didn’t quite come back into my life. My dead grandfathers remained the men in my life.
THE MAGIC OF GRANDFATHERS
1. No one man can provide all the models, the range or interests, experiences, qualities of character, styles of life a boy needs in order to understand life as a man and to get through the myths of masculinity. Models in the family are personal, seem more achievable, less daunting myths from the culture.
2. Grandparents get parents into perspective, both keep them humble and legitimize them.
3. Grandparents connect kids to the life cycle (as do babies) of all people.
4. Grandparents connect kids to the past and future of the specific family, giving the kid an identity in time and place.
5. Grandparents are less likely to try to get kids under control, as they are still trying to perfect their own children. So Grandparents and grandchildren are natural allies.
6. Grandparents, investing their personal stories into their grandchildren (who must carry the grandparents’ story into the future) can afford to be more honest than parents are.
7. Grandparents are not as anxious as parents because they don’t need to perfect children, they only need to be remembered by them.
8. Grandparents may have more legitimacy than anyone else in a child’s world. This is the "elder" who has seen it all and therefore might be the ultimate fount of wisdom.
9. Grandparents are the cavalry, who come to the rescue. They are who the parents depend on.
10. Grandparents may need help and grandchildren can give it and thereby legitimize themselves.
11. Abra in EAST OF EDEN explains to the dying old man that he must give his son the chance to "do something" for him. Unless the boy can do something for his parents or grandparents, "he can never be a man."
I am, above all, a grandfather to four boys Justin 8, Frank V 6, Christopher 5 and Knox 3 and, at last, some girls: Ellie 8 months old and twin girls on the way (Lola and Gigi were indeed born October 1.) My job has seemed to me to teach them not to be afraid of anything while their parents are teaching them how to get through life in one piece. Even if the rest of world looks at me askance, I am a hero to my grandsons. 8 year old Justin says the only thing in the world he fears is me because I make him do the things that scare him. Still, they want to do things with me and to trust my authority. I took two of the boys, six year old Frank V and three year old Knox, to see if we could find the den where the foxes in our woods might live. On the way back Frank V spotted a copperhead. I explained that the snake was poisonous but would not attack, so just watch him and don’t move any closer while I go get the hoe. I then cut off the snake’s head and told the boys they could feel him and see how a big snake felt. I showed them how to feel him and Frank V did so and reported to his little brother how he felt beaded and dry. I invited Knox, who was holding my hand, hard, to feel him, but Knox said: "Chief, you said he was poison." I agreed, "But only if he bites you. See we’ve cut his head off and he can’t bite you anymore." Knox thought for a minute. He wanted to believe me, but he was still afraid, and he was afraid to admit he was afraid. He finally said "I believed what you said the first time." Kids want to believe you can make the world safe for them.
As I slipped into my carbon monoxide coma, I thought how much my grandsons still need for me to show them the world and tell them what it feels like to live a life as a man, to know what it feels like to be a man. Only then can boys and girls avoid growing up expecting too much or too little from themselves and from the men and women they encounter. They don’t have to act on what they feel, but they do have to know what it is. And there is nobody better to teach them than a grandfather, someone much too precious to lose merely because parents hate one another right now. As Rob Reiner said in THE STORY OF US, "Hate fades."
While a father may still be young enough and scared enough to believe the masculine mystique and the myth of the hero, the grandfather is likely to get the joke. And there’s nothing like a grandfather to get a posturing father in perspective. To an older man, a younger man trying to be a family god, a boss or a hero looks nuts. What are men for anyway? They’re here to be fathers and grandfathers and uncles, to live their lives as men, aware of how it feels so they can report back home to the boys who follow. As Meryl Streep said, they are here to live their lives for other people, and to tell them about it.
To purchase video or DVD, audio-tape or audio-CD versions of this presentation,
call 800-241-7785. The video versions do include the film clips. Session #753-P-6.
For all this and more from Frank Pittman, order his books:
Grow Up!: How taking responsibility can make you a happy adult
$14 Softcover - http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1582380406/smartmarriages
Man Enough: Fathers, Sons and the Search for Masculinity
$14 Softcover - http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0399518835/smartmarriages
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