I like to think of myself as a pretty sensitive guy. However, some friends and family members would beg to differ with my self-assessment. To set the record straight, I decided to join a men's group and let a jury of my peers be the final arbitrator of my touchy-feely status. I will let them, my fellow male members of the human race, decide if I am indeed an evolved male, or if I have the sensitivity of creatures much lower on the food chain.
I went on the Internet and signed up for the first Israeli men's group I could find. Unlike men's groups in the US which meet once a week in someone's plush living room, sipping latte, eating quiche and sharing their feelings, I discovered that men's groups here are more earthy than their American counterparts. They also tend to meet for a month at a time.
Being the risk taker that I am, and in serious need of proving my point, I dropped everything and began packing for my trip. I filled my bag with volumes of 18th-century romance poetry, my Meryl Streep DVD collection and a four weeks supply of Kleenex for those special moments of sharing when many of us might be tempted, dare I say it, to cry. I set my alarm for 5 a.m. for the next day when my adventure of male self-discovery would begin.
Early on a Sunday morning, 80 of us arrived from different parts of the country to a pleasant rural setting. By the looks on our faces, it was clear that we were ready, willing and able to engage in male bonding, or at least have a good excuse to sit around, drink beer and say highly unintelligent things. To eliminate class differences, we were issued simple clothing to wear for the duration of the month. Rich or poor, CEO or felafel salesman, we all found ourselves dressed the same way, suddenly stripped of our creature comforts and downgraded to living in primitive tents with no access to electricity for our laptops, cellphones or blow dryers.
Here is a summary of my men's group experience.
Week 1: After putting on our special clothing, we were issued metal sticks that apparently are designed to fire small pieces of metal at high speeds. I sensed a great deal of cognitive dissonance when carrying this object for the first time. Here I was trying to be a softer and caring soul, yet I was asked to wield an item that could cause damage to other human beings. However, my words and deep feelings fell upon deaf ears. If I'm not mistaken, a couple of my cohorts actually snickered at my comments. Could there be something wrong with this group, or was it just me?
Our men's group is very hierarchical. Those who have been members for the longest period of time are entitled to order us around as we perform our different tasks, ranging from culinary arts, physical fitness and foreign relations. We have been training to use these metal sticks with surgical precision, but for what purpose I'm still not sure. I still think someone could get really hurt with these things if we aren't careful. In my heart of hearts, I think these objects are less than edifying and might divide, and certainly not unify members of the human race. Am I missing something here?
Week 2: I've noticed many of my fellow men's club members have evolved over the past week. For instance, Kobi, a high school dropout, called me a snobby, spoiled rotten American jerk when he first met me. After only a week of sharing and personal growth, he consciously drops the word "rotten" from his list of adjectives when he addresses me.
I'm also impressed by our resident gourmet chef, Uri, an ex-con from the South. Although he finds it difficult to use both nouns and verbs in the same sentence, he is still able to get his point across by using various hand gestures and speaking about the virtues and moral status of our respective mothers. I'm very proud of his communication skills, given his limited education, vocabulary and the large number of tattoos on his arms and lower lip.
Week 3: I guess one of the most fascinating elements of our experience is when we encounter men's groups from other cultures in the region. They also walk around with metal instruments that fire pieces of metal at high speeds. On the rare occasions that we aren't able to resolve our differences with an honest assessment of our likes and dislikes and a sincere outpouring of our hearts, we sometimes aim and fire our implements at each other. I'm not sure what this accomplishes, but it definitely thrusts our dialogue to the next level.
Every once in a while, I am asked to visit certain houses and look for participants from other men's groups who aren't being team players at best, or are being downright unfriendly at worst. On more than one occasion I was forced to send some of these anti-social individuals to a special place where they can have a "time out" by themselves and think deeply about whether or not their actions are for the greater good. On some level, I think these people appreciated my help with their moral development. However, another part of me that tells me these incarcerated individuals might harbor a tiny bit of resentment toward me and the other members of our men's group. I wonder if my intuitive powers are improving or if I am simply clueless.
Late at night, after a day of back-breaking exercise, nonstop food preparation and deep philosophical discussions about the pros and cons of bringing championship wrestling to Israel, we often share our feelings about the elders of our group. We sometimes use certain terms of endearment to describe these people who order us around. At first, I thought these words were negative, but with time I realized that it's okay to question a person's lineage as long as it's said with a smile and it helps us get the sense of heaviness off our collective, hairy chest.
Week 4: We are really blending into a team, a veritable living, breathing organism that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is hard to put into words what this experience has done for me. In addition to losing weight and gaining a working knowledge of Russian slang, I also managed to decrease my lung capacity by inhaling the equivalent of 15 lifetimes worth of passive cigarette smoke. At the final awards banquet, I came in third place as the most sensitive male of the group behind Kobi and Uri. Not bad for my first time around.
As our time together was drawing to a close, I found myself counting the days until our next special time together in this rustic setting. We switched back into our regular clothes, returned those dangerous metal sticks and then headed back to our families with increased sensitivity and compassion. I feel we are changed people. When we see our wives and kids again, they will barely recognize us as we reeducate ourselves how to use napkins instead of our sleeves at meal time. We are now ready to once again to face the world as sensitive, caring and empathetic men.
The writer's novel, Double Feature, is slated for publication in the fall.