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Late Father's Day Card
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
One of the most surprising cultural trends of the 1990's was the sudden growth of the "mythopoetic men's movement" in the early part of the decade, the time when a number of writers, philosophers, sociologists, and advocates all tried to rehabilitate the notion of "true masculinity" in a post-modern, pro-feminist world. The most prominent voice in the movement, poet Robert Bly, published a wildly successful parable about manhood, titled Iron John, in 1990 and the runaway popularity of the book (hardcover best-seller for over a year) indicated that there were a lot of men in America who wondered what being a man meant in end-of-the-millenium times. Men's movement leaders like Bly began hosting gatherings and self-help workshops, rustic weekends away from wives and girlfriends where the self-proclaimed warriors and wizards and shaman would perform traditional masculine rituals that would reconnect them to their deep, tribal, spiritual manliness.
As with anything even remotely related to new-agey style self-improvement, I of course detested the men's movement immediately and derided anyone connected to it. I've always distrusted the cult of the suddenly enlightened — the self-help gurus, the bookstore evangelicals, the chicken-soup-for-the-whatever snake charmers. These guys are forever peddling common sense to the gullible public, racking up huge sales and tying in their simplistic philosophies with seminars and daily planners and workshops and retreats. There's always a huge market for these spiritual salesmen, and it's interesting to see how quickly the American book-buying public will simply pack up and move on to the next mass-marketed philosophy — transcendental meditation, new age, the all-you-need-to-know-you-learned-in-kindergarden, the purpose driven life, the women who run with wolves, et cet, et. al. I've nothing against the notion of trying to illuminate your existence with reflection and knowledge, but I've never believed that wisdom is granted merely by shelling out 19.99 at Barnes and Noble and attending a few ridiculously priced weekend gatherings hosted by self-help prophets.
And with the men's movement of the 90's, it was particularly easy to ridicule the goings-on there, especially when you learned what the "rituals" entailed — bonfires, drum circles, storytelling, a lot of rich, white, straight guys wearing animal skins and pretending to be noble savages while acting out Gandalf and Merlin fantasies, all in the guise of self-actualization. The stereotype of the men's movement to me was a hairy, naked guy burning sage in a circle and chanting while other like-minded sorts in tribal gear spouted mystical revelations about the true manly tradition.
I'm being horribly unfair here, of course, but one of the pleasures of being a snarky prick is that you don't have to be fair. Robert Bly, the de facto leader of the men's movement, is, by all accounts, a terrific guy and a tremendous poet — his collection, The Light Around the Body won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1968 and he has been a lifelong, spirited advocate of a variety of important human-rights causes. I actually met his first wife, the writer Carol Bly, when I was in college, and I remember being completely charmed by her wit and generosity. I remember reading some of Robert Bly's poems shortly thereafter, and I was impressed by their scope and radiating intelligence.
But, like Groucho Marx, I would never join a club that would have me for a member, so it was easy to dismiss the mythopoetic men's movement as just another pseudo-philosophy that I wanted no part of. Obviously, as a reflective sort, I, too, had questions about the nature of man's role in the world; I read novels by Walker Percy and Richard Ford, writers who tackled head-on some of the common problems faced by men in the post-war era. But I couldn't belong to any movement, even one that I might have some inherent sympathy for.
Now it's two decades later and I'm discovering, much to my horror, that not only do I sort of understand the point of the men's movement, I actively believe a lot of their tenets. Like any epiphany, this one took a long time developing, but if I had to pinpoint the exact moment when this idea coalesced for me, it was a night in 2010 when I suddenly said, out loud, for no apparent reason, "I miss men." And specifically, what I was thinking was: I miss older men. It was a surprising admission — I have many male friends, some my age, others a few years younger, so it's not like I'm lacking male camaraderie. But there was something missing for me, with my friends, and I remember distinctly feeling an almost indescribable longing to be amongst older guys. It hit me then, of course, just how much I missed my father, who died in 1998.
I wasn't bemoaning the loss of a mentor, for God knows I never had that kind of relationship with my dad. I just missed being around somebody older. Somebody smarter. Somebody a few paces ahead of me in life and comfortable in his own skin. I love my friends, but we're always in a subtle competition with each other and sometimes you just want to be around somebody who doesn't give a damn about things like that. I'll say this for older guys: they don't have a lot of time or patience for the minutiae that clogs up so many people's daily existence. It's not like they've automatically become some font of wisdom and serenity--indeed, some old guys are just old idiots, never learning — but it's inarguable to me that many old guys have had a tiny, perceptive peek at the big blueprint of life and that's something that should never be undervalued by anyone.
Fortunately, I've been able to find a couple of old guys to hang out with — one, a racetrack friend, a guy I smoke cigars with and pick horses with, a guy who's seen enough that he doesn't feel the need to impress me with his accomplishments. And the other guy, an old theatre friend who recently shared a Scotch with me at Henry's, a guy who likes opera and baseball and has no desire to set the world on fire. It's reassuring to know that I don't need to find warriors or wizard or warlocks to help me get by; just a couple of old guys, with bad backs and an unhurried sense of living for the now.