You may remember a joke book that was out in the 70s called “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche”. I’m not sure anyone at all eats quiche anymore so it’s certainly outdated. But every year or so there is still a flurry to try and establish what a ‘real man’ is. Sometimes, cute marketing terms go with it. Like Metrosexual. Retrosexual. Textosexual. Gastrosexuals.
And there are always lots of questions. Do real men cry? Do they wear budgie smugglers? Can they express their emotions? Cook? Stay home with kids?
Mark Pollard has a few different jobs. By day, he is a strategy director in a big advertising agency. He also blogs and recently, with his mate Gavin Heaton, he has helped put together an extraordinary book called The Perfect Gift For A Man that (if I were writing the education curriculum) should be required reading for every high school student in Australia not to mention every adult male.
And in a highly engaging way, it seeks to answer some of those questions.
It’s a compilation of first-person stories written by men (and a few women) about what it means to be a man. It’s funny and sad and wise and brilliant. And more importantly, it gives a voice to some very nuanced aspects of modern manhood via the experiences of the men who have contributed chapters. I’m going to publish three chapters from the book as guest posts over the next couple of weeks starting today but to give you a sense of the overall project, I asked Mark a few questions…..
Q: What gave you the idea for this project?
A: Reach Out – an organisation that helps young Australians with mental health issues – was running a promotion with Triple J called “Man Week” in July. It was a joint effort to get young men to share their stories. The guys at Reach Out approached a few of us who blog and invited us to share our own stories. It wasn’t really until the Wednesday of Man Week that momentum quickly picked up and it seemed like someone was publishing a story about their experiences every hour or two. It went nuts. When it all calmed down, it felt like we were just scratching the surface so I discussed compiling the stories into a book with Gavin Heaton and we made it happen.
Q: There are some extremely personal, brave and moving stories in the book. How did you find them?
A: Well, we put the call out for formal submissions via Twitter and our blogs and invited people to confirm their submissions via a Google Form. Fancy, eh? We then caught onto Blurb – a print-on-demand book publisher and book store from San Francisco – who are working with a company called Pollenizer in Sydney, and are selling the book through them. It was mostly straight forward – took 100+ hours to get it finalised.
Q: What are some of the stories which had the biggest impact on you when you read them?
A: Laying out the book, I’ve read and re-read the stories so many times and each has its own beautiful moments. But I was really struck by Alan Long’s frankness about going home to an empty house just after he got divorced and how the emptiness reminded him of his failures. Scott Drummond and Jye Smith wrote beautifully about losing loved ones, how they felt about it and what they did. Annik Skelton wrote about her dad – a doctor from the Hills District in Sydney. Her story about accepting his normalcy and appreciating his contribution to their local community was touching. Steve Crombie wrote about his parents divorcing, disappearing into drugs, having a friend jump of a cliff and the resolve these experiences gave him to milk the most out of life.
I think it’s important that people who read about this book understand that most of the stories come from failure and struggle. What the people who contributed to the book have in common is bravery and a desire to somehow use their failures and experiences as ammunition to spark change in the world – and they’ve put themselves out there hoping that other people draw some strength and can do the same. Every single person was nervous publishing these stories. To be honest, I think I even procrastinated about finishing the book because I was freaking out about putting my own story into print even though a couple of thousand people had read it on my blog.
Failure only breaks you if you don’t do something about it next time.
Q: What do you think the biggest challenge is today for men? Besides knowing what to say when women ask them the ‘does my bum look fat in this’ question?
A: I’m no expert but I truly believe that the idea of ‘strength’ defines manhood, and that society would be a bit healthier if men realised that ‘strength’ doesn’t have to mean ‘strength over others’ but ‘strength with others’. Men are physical beings. Women, too. But boys are often either ‘in’ or ‘out’ based on their physical prowess, which teams they’re in, what sport they play with whom at lunch, if they’re worth picking a fight with. So, if men can encourage, but more importantly display, behaviour that flips the idea of ‘domination’ into ‘support’ then we’ll start moving in the right direction.
Q: What’s your greatest hope for The Perfect Gift For A Man?
A: I want men to talk and share their stories. I talk pretty openly about this sort of stuff and I know it makes a lot of guys uncomfortable because they’re not used to it. However, every time I do, one guy in a group will have a chat with me about something – the birth of a son making work feel meaningless; the devastation he feels because his wife just left; not knowing how to protect his sons through the teenage years; pining to have known his father better so he could work out why he is the way he is.
Western society has lost a lot of its rituals and soul. I know this is flippant, but the men of the village initiating a teenage boy as an adult of the tribe has been replaced by pub crawls during O-Week at uni. So, apart from telling stories, I’d love for men to work out how to be more community-spirited about the boys in their family and friend networks and help them become good people. Men need to take accountability for other men. I’m still working out how to be involved with this – right now, I’m happy for it to be through this book and reaching out to guys I know when they’re struggling.
Q: Personally, how has doing this project changed you?
A: A few years ago, I read a book called ‘Manhood’ by Steve Biddulph. It gave me perspective nobody had been able to – or tried to – give me before. I’ve seen a lot of struggle, and been through some too. And, somewhere along the way – as I wrote more, published my own magazine, hosted a radio show – I felt I could make a difference. This project, if anything has made me more determined to be the change in the world that I want to see – without compromising the time and focus my own little family needs from me.
Q: How can people get hold of the book? And what else would you like them to do?
A: All the information is at www.theperfectgiftforaman.com.au . There’s a paperback version available – all proceeds go to Reach Out’s parent organisation, The Inspire Foundation. And we made a full version of the book free as a PDF– because the purpose of this thing from the start has been about getting the stories into as many people’s hands as possible. So far, over 3,000 people have downloaded it.
Here is the first extract from the book, a beautiful story by Scott Drummond about losing his mother earlier this year and the unexpected gift it gave him in terms of thinking about what it means to be a man…..
Being a man means: knowing where you came from
I was a pretty intense, bookish kid, sensitive and a little introverted. Mum understood my anxiety and always made me feel better when I was stressed. We would spend hours together, watching television (Twin Peaks), solving crosswords (we shared a love of words) and talking about current affairs.
Mum never treated me like a kid, always listened intently as I formed opinions about whatever it was that we were discussing. She was fascinated by ideas and incredibly compassionate. I have her and Dad to thank for my abiding sense of curiosity but the perfectionist streak is all Mum — we both set ourselves extremely high standards and often struggled to meet them.
Being a man means: knowing it’s OK to feel terrified sometimes
Dad’s voice was gentle and quite calm on the phone but I knew straight away that there was something wrong. It was past midnight in the UK and I wasn’t expecting a call. But more than that, and it’s hard to explain exactly, when your Mum has had Multiple Sclerosis for twenty years you live with an almost imperceptible, yet deep-seated fear, that one day the creeping degenerative disease might win the fight.
Mum had struggled to overcome a nagging chest infection, which had in turn given her breathing difficulties. We’d later find out that she had contracted pneumonia. I was struggling to take it all in but I could hear Dad’s voice trembling so I said goodbye and within four hours I was on a flight to London, Heathrow.
The last thing Dad said was that I should hurry. Time wasn’t on my side and I was absolutely terrified I wouldn’t get the chance to say a proper goodbye.
Being a man means: accepting when it’s time to say goodbye
Over the next three days we all sat with Mum by her hospital bed, holding her hands, talking to her, reassuring her about what lay ahead. She had always been terrified of death and it was heartbreaking seeing her so scared. When she repeatedly said “Ich habe angst” (German for “I’m scared”) all I could say was “Ich auch Mutti” (“Me too, Mum”). It was true and I’d like to think the honesty helped us both a little.
Mum’s strength faded day after day but she seemed unwilling to let go. The doctors had advised us that it can be hard for the terminally ill to pass away when their loved ones are still so close. As she had been in some pain we all decided to leave Mum alone for one night. Hearing Dad speak softly to Mum, letting her know that it was alright for her to let go and to be free from her pain, is still one of the most beautiful things I will ever experience.
I watched my Dad, a husband of thirty six years, give his soulmate permission to die and find the peace she was searching for. I hope one day I can be that brave, that selfless, that accepting.
Being a man means: taking those first difficult steps
When I got back to Sydney I realised I was mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted. I took some more time off work but it didn’t seem to be helping. I actually couldn’t cope with basic tasks and although I was trying I felt completely helpless and at the mercy of my emotions, which were all over the place.
Karla was amazing, comforting me, but I could tell she felt helpless too and was worried about me. As much for her as for me I went and spoke to the St Vincent’s Mental Health Service in Darlinghurst. I felt totally broken and I knew I couldn’t fix myself alone.
The triage nurse at St Vincent’s was incredible. We just sat and talked for over an hour and she let me unravel emotionally. I don’t think I’ll really ever be able to thank her enough for listening so sensitively, and at the end she suggested I visit a psychologist to help me to deal with my depression and to start processing the grief I was feeling. It was just the beginning but knowing that I had professionals who cared about me and were going to help me to feel better gave me hope, something that had been in short supply.
Being a man means: sharing your feelings and embracing weakness as a strength
Seeing Jon, my psychologist, has allowed me to dedicate serious time on a regular basis to thinking about my emotions, the grief I am feeling, the sense of unending loss, and about how my I want my life to go on without my mum. It’s the biggest challenge I’ve faced, but I feel like, in Jon, I have a professional guide through the often messy world of the mind. Maybe I could do it on my own but I’m happy to have the support.
A massive part of this journey has been my close friends. Early on, when I was still really suffering and feeling heavily depressed, I reached out to a small number of them and explained how I was doing. It was really hard — despite everything that had happened I stillfelt that somehow my admission of weakness, of being broken and unable to fix myself, was something to be ashamed of. But they were there for me in the truest sense of the phrase.
I think men are often expected to fix problems, not have them. But I learned it’s natural andOK to feel helpless sometimes and that there’s a lot of truth in the saying “a problem shared is a problem halved.”
You know who you are and I hope you know how much it means to me that you were there for me. I’m very lucky to have friends like you.
Being a man means: being a man
If I’ve learned anything through all this it is that there aren’t any hard-and-fast rules for how to be a man in this crazy and unpredictable emotional tornado we call life. The only thing we can really be assured of is that life will continue to change for us all, regardless of how muchwe wish it wouldn’t.
All I know is that how you grow and evolve as a man to meet the challenges that life will inevitably throw at you is what really counts. I’ve learned that no matter how alone or broken you feel there are men and women who care enough to be there for you, to help you feelless broken and alone.
Thanks so much for letting me write this and for reading. Thanks especially to Mark Pollard for inspiring me to have the courage to write about the way I have been feeling. I haven’t written a poem for my Mum, but I did read someone else’s at her funeral, and I share it with you here because it is my adopted tribute to her life, one fully lived and, in the face of adversity, with courage, dignity and a loving heart.
What a beautiful piece and what an amazing project. A reminder that if you want to buy or download the book, here’s what you need to know:
What do you think it means to be a man today? If you have a son, what do you teach him and how do you hope he’ll grow up?