It's dark. Very dark. And I'm in the woods, surrounded by strange men with flashlights on their heads. I'm cold. Hungry. And really scared. A guy with neck tattoos is squinting at me. Please, God, don't let me piss him off. Why did I come here? What are they going to do to me? Suddenly, a guy in a J. Crew button down beats a drum, and they all begin to... chant?! They smile; they're welcoming me. I smile too. This is Men's Group.
On the spectrum of manhood, I fall somewhere between Caitlyn Jenner and Tom Brady. But anything more specific than that is open to interpretation. I prefer Backstreet Boys over Beastie Boys, Bravo over ESPN, and I may have even spray tanned before a wedding this past winter. I do have a girlfriend, but I can't throw a football as well as she can. I also can't start a fire without a Duraflame. I can't fix a flat tire without calling AAA, and while I'm quite certain that I am a man, I still struggle with how to define my masculinity.
My best friend, Jay, doesn't help matters either. He was raised as an only child, having grown up with a father who forced him to go deer hunting, when all he really wanted was to make mixtapes in his room. Today, he's a talented baker, wordsmith and sensitive soul (who may have cried during the climactic scene of I Love You, Man). He also happens to be married to a woman who isn't as sentimental about birthdays or anniversaries, and who makes more money than him. (Surely, none of that is to blame for his recent anxiety attacks.)
So, why do we feel so anxious and insecure? Perhaps it's because the roles and expectations for men and women have never been blurrier than they are today. Jay's shoe collection rivals that of his wife's. I secretly blow dry my hair every morning when I creep out of bed before my girlfriend wakes up. On the other hand, Jay and I also like to drink our faces off, co-manage a softball team, and watch an unsettling amount of porn. I guess you could say we want our cake, and we want to bake it too.
Manhood is confusing in 2015. With athletes becoming curvy covergirls, tough-guy actors waxing their chests for movies, and men's underwear featuring "booty lifters", it's hard to pinpoint what it means to be a man today. Which is why when Jay mentioned joining a men's group, I jumped at the opportunity.
A men's group is basically a gathering of dudes from different walks of life that meets weekly to talk about guy stuff. It's an adult fraternity, only with more therapy than throw-up. And that's exactly what we were looking for -- male bonding (we could handle the beers and the women on our own).
Of course, sharing our plan with those women would prove more complicated. They questioned what the hell we would do at Men's Group, and why we wanted to go. Was this a sexual experimentation thing? Were they being replaced? Hardly. I explained how women are just better at maintaining friendships than men (ie. the last wedding I went to had 17 bridesmaids and four groomsmen). But, Jay and I wanted a support system too. They weren't convinced. Jay added, "Maybe we could even work through some of our issues in group, so we wouldn't have to bring them home to our relationships." That part they liked better, but they were still skeptical.
We, on the other hand, were excited. And nervous. (And also skeptical.) How was being around a group of random guys going to help define our manhood? Then again, there are over 20 Men's Group chapters in Los Angeles alone, so maybe they were onto something.
That night, we headed off to our first meeting, attempting to look rugged without trying too hard. However, the first time we opened our mouths, we'd already screwed up by calling the group leader by his first name (guess we're getting cut from Men's Group). He explained that they only use last names "to honor our fathers and our masculinity". He then sent us farther into the woods on our own to wait for the group. (Side note: Nobody really goes outside at night in Los Angeles, so Jay and I were not prepared for the freezing cold 58 degree temperature. Or the lack of proper Trader Joe's catering.) We were clearly out of our element, wondering who would actually volunteer to stand out in the cold woods for three hours at night. Welp, we were about to find out.
There was the stay-at-home dad with a house full of women, who felt like he was turning into one, the young tattooed guy who accidentally knocked up his girlfriend but wanted to be a responsible dad and an old surfer who couldn't understand why he'd been divorced three times. And yet they all wanted to be better men.
During our first meeting, most of us laughed and some of us (Jay) even cried, as we compared notes and supported whoever needed it most. Not surprisingly, we talked an awful lot about women -- our pursuit of them, our frustrations with them, our desire to please them. At some point in the evening, Jay and I exchanged a look as if to say, "This is the weirdest-slash-greatest thing that has ever happened to us." As obviously different as we all were, there was still this underlying feeling of sameness. Maybe that was masculinity.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, I would often take note of the various support groups that gathered outside of rec centers -- A.A., O.A., S.A.A. -- and I remember feeling envious of them. Not of their burdens, but of their kinship. I used to think, if I was drinking, eating and screwing in healthy moderation, who was I supposed to talk to about my victories and defeats? I guess what I was looking for was "Bro-A". And that's what I found in Men's Group.
Over the past ten months, Jay and I have continued with our weekly dudes-only meetings, which has only benefitted our relationships with the women in our lives. We've undoubtedly become more understanding, more tolerant, more loving and more confident, as we've developed unlikely friendships with men.
Today, our Men's Group is part of our extended family, and we've all helped each other better define what it means to be a man in 2015. It means sometimes accepting that your wife makes more money than you, or preferring monogamy over casual sex, or trying to be cool with your son's painted fingernails, and yes, maybe even sharing your hairdryer with your girlfriend. Because wherever that puts you on the spectrum of manhood, it doesn't make you any less of a man.