I was about to participate in a seminar where women spend two days learning about men. I mentioned my upcoming appointment to a few friends and acquaintances and asked them what they thought.
Woman One: "Seminar? Why go to a seminar? Men are so simple. That seems like a big waste of time."
Woman Two: "It's sad that society's generated this belief in a gender gap. Some people are from Mars, some people are from Venus, and some are from Saturn. We're all different, and complex as well. I think it's pathetic to go to a seminar and try to learn quickly about some complex subject that should take a lifetime to learn. (Of course, I'm 34 years old and single.)"
Woman Three: "Those women are desperate stupid idiots. Why don't they read a book in bed and figure it out for themselves?"
Man One: "What a sick bunch they must be. Why don't they just go to bars? Yikes, what a scary thing."
Woman Four: "There's not much to be gained from categorizing people. I'd rather go out to dinner with a man than learn about his psychology."
Man Two: "The word to women is often, 'You're okay. There's nothing wrong with you.' But the message can also be that men are boorish, unappreciative creatures."
Man Three: "Good idea. Study the enemy."
Woman Five: "It's the easiest thing in the world to keep a man happy. Feed him and fuck him and leave him alone."
Most of the reactions I got were negative, but not all of them were. One woman told me, "You're either bitter or better. Whatever helps people get better and not be bitter is a good thing."
Many women also asked me for details regarding the seminar, as though they would like to attend. Did it have a good track record? Did I think it would work?
I have another friend who's a male who told me to forget the seminar. "For men and women to learn about each other, they should just read each other's magazines," he said. "Men should read Elle and Cosmo, and women should read Playboy and Maxim. Because it doesn't matter what's true or false. It matters what's being said. It's all about the spin."
I considered the hostilities that underlie the most aggressive of these reactions. Are people just against seminars in general? Do most folks share my own built-in aversion to groupthink and submissive conformity? Or these people I'd been asking -- and some of the women insisted on being called "Ms." -- did they see these seminars as an admission of weakness? Were they against admitting that we need to be fixed, because that implies that somehow we're broken?
To me, self-help is like the CliffsNotes to the great literature of the self. It's a massive shortcut. Instead of reading philosophy and poetry, and paying attention to what our bodies are telling us, and writing down our dreams, and learning to meditate, and traveling widely, and living in different places, and meeting unusual people -- instead of participating in all of these instructive and self-renovating pursuits, some folks make do with reading or following the watered-down teachings of someone else who has done these things.
Instead of learning a musical instrument and a foreign language, we listen to tunes and rely on subtitles. Instead of going for a run, we watch a race. Instead of traveling the great undiscovered country within ourselves, we visit its website.
Is it possible, then, for self-help to really help? CliffsNotes can help us pass the quiz, but then we never come to own the experience of the book. Carrying this analogy, I'd contend that self-help might tweak a surface behavior or two for the short-term, but then the deeper patterns of who we are will rise inevitably back into view.
"The relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure that it is profane to seek to interpose helps," Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote. We all want to better ourselves, but Emerson taught us that the way to do this was to read poetry and observe nature.
Since Emerson's time, the diminishments of nature and literature have closed off vast spaces in the souls of people, but can those spaces be re-reached and re-appreciated by a system of repeated affirmations, self-actualization courses, and 12-step techniques?
Truly helping ourselves -- that is, overhauling our deepest selves -- requires a slow and steady accumulation of experiential ingredients. Reading a self-help book or attending a seminar is like buying an already-baked cake. You might enjoy the benefits, but afterwards all you'll have is indigestion and crumbs. Borrowing another metaphor, I'd say, self-help might teach you to fish, but it won't go fishing for you.
(By now I'm sure you've begun to wonder what my own gender is, or perhaps you've already checked for a clue from my name, dearest reader. But does it matter? I am, in fact, a man, and if you wish to profile me further, then I'll also tell you that I'm 37 years old, divorced, white, and, well, what else do you need to know to contextualize my statements and judge me? Anyway, I'll be attending the aforementioned seminar as a liaison, a representative man, whose role it will be to answer the questions of these self-helping women. And let me go on record here and assure you that I am not judging these women or this particular workshop. I have hopes for each of them and will attend in the spirit of wanting to contribute, to help the help happen. I may be skeptical about what they're fixing and how they're fixing it, but that's their business, not mine.)
Susan Cameron, a chiropractor, had just broken up with a man whom she'd been dating for four years. She told me that she'd been going to a series of seminars to learn about men.
What was Cameron's history with self-help?
"My spiritual transformation started with doing Native American practices, which included vision quests and fire walks and sweat lodges. And I had a yoga instructor who got me into macrobiotics and yoga."
But didn't she differentiate between going on a vision quest and spending time in a sweat lodge and learning yoga, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, buying a self-help book by someone else who's had these experiences?
"Direct experience is definitely more profound and more life-changing. But I think going to a seminar falls under the heading of direct experience."
Why did Cameron feel that she should go to a seminar to learn about connecting with men?
"I think my quest is how to communicate and how to bring peace and love into the world," Cameron said. "So when it comes to men and women understanding each other, there's that burst of knowledge for me in wanting to understand men and have that peace and community and connection with men. I wanted to learn to honor men for who they are. Also, when I started with "Celebrating Men, Satisfying Women," I was at a place in my life where I was seriously contemplating relationships and wanting to see what it would take to work together in partnerships with men, to create a successful relationship."
("Celebrating Men, Satisfying Women" is the brainchild of Los Angeles native Alison Armstrong. In 1995, Armstrong formed a company called PAX Programs Incorporated, which now oversees the sales of a novel and a CD and operates six seminars in dozens of cities designed to help women understand and appreciate men. "Celebrating Men, Satisfying Women" is also the seminar that I was preparing to participate in.)
And what was Cameron's own history with men?
"Probably you could categorize it as serial monogamy. You know, a series of one- and two-year relationships. I just got out of that four-year relationship recently. And I was engaged once for a very brief time."
And she'd had enough problems with men that she wanted to get help in figuring them out?
Cameron answered, "It felt like if I was seriously contemplating wanting to be in a relationship and eventually to get married, then these tools would definitely benefit me, not only in looking for a partner to spend the rest of my life with, but also just in general. You know, the men I encounter in business, or my patients, or colleagues, or roommates, or any male in my life, I wanted to learn how to honor and cherish and communicate with men."
And that was different from learning how to communicate with women?
"Yes," she answered, concisely.
Could she explain?
"Well," Cameron began, "with women you can talk about ten things at once in a circular motion, and we can follow each other and get back to the point after taking many side trails. Whereas communicating with men you want to stay single-focused and on a single point. That's because men are hunters, and they need to stay focused to capture the deer, or whatever they're hunting. If they stopped to notice the pretty flowers, then they might look up and the deer would be gone. With women, we can chime in and add our two cents and add our experience and validate each other and cheer each other on and interrupt, and it's not a big deal. Women are gatherers; we can notice the details that make certain flowers different from other flowers. But with men, interruptions get them off track."
I interrupted Cameron with my two cents. I told her that most of the characteristics she had just ascribed to women reminded me of myself, even though I'm a man. And the traits she'd said were common to men didn't sound like me at all.
"That's good that you're in touch with your feminine side," she said, and it sounded sincere. "But what I think men value is listening without interruptions. Men usually think deeply and have strong opinions, and their opinions are very much tied in with their values and who they are."
I interrupted again. I was getting irritated at Cameron's broad generalizations. (Was I growing irritated because my male values were being compromised? Was I unable to accept what she was saying because I was too single-focused -- like a typical male -- on a particular implication in her ideas, namely, her stereotyping?) I told her she was reducing massive complexities into neat little categories.
She didn't blink. "There are fundamental differences with communication," she maintained. "With men, they think, and they build opinions, and then they share from that place, which is kind of a very sacred place for them to share from."
But I told her again that I don't do that and that it was rubbing me the wrong way for her to lump me in with others of my gender.
"I don't know how to explain it any other way," she said. "That's what I've learned. To listen to a man without interrupting him is a gift that you can give him."
Which is just a nice value for any person to have when they're talking to any other person.
"I guess you could say that," she conceded. "But I've found that it really helps for me to shut up with men, to hold back, and then they can go deeper with their opinions. That's not something that I've found as much with women."
Fine. Okay. So. What were some other techniques that Cameron had learned from her seminars?
She thought a moment. "I learned that it's good to give a man some transition time between activities," she said. "If he's just gotten home from work, then it's good to give him time to land and decompress and not just inundate him with questions and tell him about your day the minute he walks in the door."
But what about her needs? What about Susan Cameron? What if she wanted or needed to talk about something the moment her man came through the door?
"Then you give him half an hour," she answered.
So wasn't this seminar just encouraging women to be innocuous and acquiescing?
"Not at all," Cameron said quickly. "It's about getting our needs met. It's about empowering women to speak what our needs are in a very honorable way."
So it's about passive manipulation.
"No, not at all," answered Cameron, sounding like I just didn't get it. "It's about being open and honest and clearly communicating and honoring each other while you're communicating. So let's say I need eight hours of sleep. And my husband likes to wake me up at five o'clock in the morning to have sex. I might say, 'I need eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.' And I'd clearly communicate that, to let him know that I may be willing to have sex but I also have some basic needs, and we have to learn how to accomplish both of our needs. It's not about manipulation; it's about learning how to see what our needs are and to ask for them."
Which is a terrific practice for any two people, regardless of gender. Or for any two countries or organizations or groups, for that matter.
I decided to pursue this line of questions with someone who runs one of these seminars. I contacted PAX Programs and got in touch with San Diego's head honcho -- the woman who coordinates and organizes and runs many of the seminars here in town -- Donna Alexander. Alexander is a wife and mother who's been involved with PAX for seven years. She started out by going to the workshop herself, on the advice of a friend, and she knew right away that she wanted to be a part of getting this information out into the culture.
In time, Alexander was trained to lead courses, which she's been doing since 2002. "So you're a seminar leader," I said, at one point. And she answered, "Technically, I'm a workshop leader. We call them workshops."
Much better word, I thought, since "seminar" is, ironically, masculine, in that it bears the same etymological root as "semen." The meaning of the word in Latin (seminarium) was "breeding ground."
"The reason we call them workshops is because the women actually have to do some work," she said. "We don't do it to them or for them."
Between 50 and 100 women attend each local session of "Celebrating Men, Satisfying Women." Prospective attendees have an opportunity, before the workshop, to complete a short questionnaire about what they want to accomplish in the course. Then the workshop leader reads the questionnaires and makes sure that the attendees are going to get what they want out of the experience. Over the course of two days, the women take notes, do worksheets, and share with the group, but mostly they listen and absorb. At the end of the second day, they test what they've learned on a panel of representative men, which is where I'll come in.
"What we're providing for women," Alexander said, "is a different perspective. A new way of seeing men. Like a new way of interpreting what men are saying and doing. So it's not about changing men; it's about changing a woman's understanding of what men are saying and doing."
I asked Alexander about her own personal history (divorced, two kids from the previous marriage, now happily married), and then I asked her whether she thought her personal history mattered in relation to her being a workshop leader.
"Probably my past is relative in that it makes me real," she answered. "You know, I haven't lived a fairy-tale life. I've lived a real life. And I think that makes me more accessible, and women are more willing to learn from me."
And what did they learn?
"Our graduates come out of the workshops feeling much more powerful," she said. "Because what we teach them is what men want and need but also how to get what they need from men in a really effective way."
And what way was that? Passive manipulation?
"No," she said. "Authenticity. Telling the truth. Being respectful. Asking for what they need. I'll give you an example. Often, the way that women tell men what they need is by telling the men all the things they've done wrong. And you can see how that would make a man defensive and not in the best place to provide what she's asking for. So we teach women, first of all, that he's not wrong. He just didn't know. And we teach women to ask for something in such a way that it doesn't make a man defensive but actually inspires him to want to provide it."
Alexander continued, "Another thing that women have in their toolbox, as we say, is really emasculating men when men do something that women determine was wrong. Which again has a negative impact on men and the way that they relate to the women. So we teach women how to get what they want without emasculating men."
I expressed to Alexander my own personal knee-jerk resistance to what she was saying. I liked the idea of not being emasculated or blamed or interrupted, but I told her that I couldn't stand being reduced to my gender.
She answered, "Instead of reducing people to their gender, I think what we're doing is honoring and respecting how we're put together and the ways in which we're different from each other."
So men and women are just fundamentally different from each other?
"I would say that men and women are very different from each other, and a lot of the trouble comes from both men and women expecting the opposite sex to be like themselves," Alexander said. "But men and women aren't versions of each other. Women think that men are hairy women, and some men think that women are emotionally indulgent men. And if you start from the fact that men and women are more different from each other than we can even imagine, then that's a great foundation to begin from to begin understanding each other."
But what about the masculine traits that you might have, even though you're a woman? And what about the feminine traits that I have in my personality, even though I'm a man?
She said, "We actually don't talk about male and female. We talk about the qualities of femininity and masculinity. And we think both men and women have both."
Okay. So if I were going to make a list, with masculinity on the left and femininity on the right, what would I put under each heading?
Alexander told me, "Masculinity would be about producing results and providing. And you could see how that might be something that both men and women can do, especially if a woman is a single parent and she's responsible for providing. And on the feminine side of things would be the enhancements in life. The things that aren't as clearly related to survival. Things like art, music, cooking. And men could certainly be engaged in those. Of course, food is related to survival, but then there's a question of how fancy you're going to make it."
How did Alexander respond to those who thought she was preying on the desperate, propagating gender stereotypes, and oversimplifying complex issues?
"We don't prey on the desperate," she said. "We help them. Which is what our graduates would tell you. Most people are interested in learning about the opposite sex. And we're not propagating stereotypes. If we were, we'd have a very different name for our workshops. We might call it "Men Are Pigs." But we don't. We call it "Celebrating Men, Satisfying Women." And there are a lot of stereotypes that we debunk in our course. For instance, women have the idea that men are really selfish, and we don't see that. From our perspective, there's something else going on with men that has women view them as selfish, and we help women see that in a different light, a more powerful, more useful light. The women who come to our course are usually frustrated or confused, or they don't have the kind of relationship that they always hoped for, and they're willing to learn something new."
What was Alexander's own history with self-help?
"I tend to refer to it as personal growth and development," she said, "and, in general, I'm in favor of people doing whatever supports them in having the life that they want. And my personal background is that I've participated mildly in the past, but what struck me when I did "Celebrating Men, Satisfying Women" was how much value was there. Because I thought I was already a pretty evolved and educated person, so I was surprised how much I didn't know about men."
When I asked Alexander next what she'd come to learn about men, she started repeating back to me the same teachings I'd heard on Armstrong's CDs and read in the literature about her courses and heard Cameron saying as well. Men are hunters, women are gatherers, men are single-focused and need transition time, women can handle many things at once, et cetera, et cetera.
So I interrupted her (since, after all, women don't mind being interrupted as much as men), and I said, yes, men are hunters. We like to hunt. So what makes a woman think that she can tame a man? What made Donna Alexander think that just because a man settled down with a woman, he was going to stop hunting for other women? Weren't men biologically designed to spread their seed?
"That's true," she conceded. "Men are hunters, and they are designed biologically to spread their seed. But you may not have experienced this yet in your life: for almost all men, there are gifts that a woman brings to his life that would make monogamy worth it. We teach women not to have the hunter leave home hungry. And we've also seen that men are naturally given to honoring their word, and when a man says 'I do' and gives his word to be faithful, he means it and he does it."
(I mentioned this interchange to a fellow male at work, and he scoffed, "Yeah, right. That's all well and good until some beautiful woman comes up to you in a bar and offers you sex with no strings attached.")
I said nothing. I waited for Alexander to continue.
"A long time ago," she said, "all that was required for survival was that men and women hook up and make babies every so often. And our culture has changed dramatically over the years, and there's a lot more that's possible between men and women than there ever was, with the choices and options we have in our roles. Who could have imagined 200 years ago that a man could stay home and raise the children while the wife went out to work? We have so much more choice now. And it's a good thing, but it also gives rise to more confusion and frustration, having all those options. And there's so much that's possible in the union between a man and a woman, and really understanding each other's needs."
And these workshops and books and CDs are designed to be supplemental to the actual experiencing and making mistakes and doing and learning for ourselves?
"Sure," she answered, "but I would recommend that people start here as soon as possible. Because our culture doesn't teach us how to be good partners for each other."
At last, I'd figured out a way to articulate one of my misgivings to Alexander. I told her that I'm not a mathematical equation, and I don't want to be figured out. I told her that I didn't want a woman to become single-focused and hunt down my needs. I told her that over the years I'd come to respect women who were out for their own needs and who interacted with me and if it worked, it worked. But I didn't want a woman who was innocuous and acquiescing. I thought that was boring.
"Yes," she agreed. "We don't turn women into Stepford wives. No one likes a milquetoast. We make women strong and powerful and successful and accomplished, the way most of them already are."
But I don't think of women who go to workshops to learn about men as being powerful and successful and accomplished, I said.
"Oh," Alexander responded succinctly. "I do."
So, of course, I had to go find this out for myself. I had to get into the room for a workshop session of "Celebrating Men, Satisfying Women." But I wasn't going to dress up as a woman, and they wouldn't let me audit the full course. Instead, to cap off my own involvement in this subject matter -- to blend my misgivings about the whole enterprise and my hope for human improvement in general -- I'd have to sign up to be a panelist for the March 2006 workshop of "Celebrating Men, Satisfying Women."
Alexander told me that near the end of the two-day intensive, four men would be invited to sit in front of the workshop's attendees and answer questions that the women had developed over the course of the seminar. "You should really try to get on the panel," Alexander said. "Then you will really get to see how committed the women are to understanding you and the kind of safety and intimacy and trust that is possible."
The cynical side of me was reminded of the men's seminars in the movie Magnolia, with Tom Cruise's character authorizing men to "Worship the cock and tame the cunt." That sick parody had the ring of truth to it, implying: "You want to understand men? Fine. I'll show you the kind of self-help men really want." It's no mistake that those satirically misogynist seminars were called "Seduce and Destroy."
But this seminar, um, workshop, I'd be attending was called "Celebrating Men, Satisfying Women." Again, my cynical self began whispering things to me, for example, how the word "celebrate" is often a code statement for something else. "Let's go celebrate," we say, meaning, "Let's go get drunk." Or, "It's a day of celebration," which translates as "It's a day off from work." Friedrich Nietzsche (the German philosopher) taught us that no celebration comes without suffering. His idea was that we celebrate victories, but without losers there can't be any winners.
So! A workshop of women celebrating and getting satisfied. Think of that group dynamic. That overabundance of hormones. The sisterhood mentality. Us versus them. That cackling-hen militancy. A pep rally of artificial feel-good emotions. A room full of estrogenous, heart-sleeved, Oprah-fied, cry-fast, wily Y-chromosome-less whiners.
Or so the cynical male side of me, in spite of myself, thought. What I really felt in my heart of hearts was that I couldn't wait to get into a room full of women. I hoped they'd all be attractive. I hoped they'd all like me. I hoped I'd say profound and helpful things to them and they'd remember me and quote me.
To qualify for the panel, I had to contact the panel coordinator, Anita Zick, and answer a few quick questions.
"Do you love women?" Zick asked me.
"That's my problem," I told her. "I love women, plural. My trouble is figuring out how to appreciate the love of one woman."
She laughed. "That's fine. Are you heterosexual?"
"Is a snake's ass close to the ground?" I thought, remembering a favorite old saying of my grandfather's. But all I said was, "Um. Yes."
Zick continued. "And you're single?"
And then, just like that, Zick said, "I think you'd be perfect for this panel."
Good. So that was that.
Now I had a few questions for Anita Zick. I assumed that she had been through the workshop herself?
"I'm on a growth path," she said. "I'm always looking for ways to improve myself. With many seminars, you know their main objective is just to get your money. So you have to do some research. Through this workshop, I was able to completely transform my relationship with my father. I finally understood his place in our family."
I told Zick that I'd been talking to a lot of women on the street and that most of them thought the act of going to a seminar to learn about men was pathetic, desperate, and sad.
She answered, "The bottom line is this: 'How are your relationships working for you?' If your bottom line is that they're not working -- if you're angry and bitter about men -- then what are you going to do about it? The message we're giving is that most women need to come at it from a different angle than the one they've been raised with. So many women are stuck in the mindset of a man's world. However we learn to gain perspective, I think it's a good thing."
So I was going to sit before 50 or so women, with 3 other men, and represent my masculine gender.
Could I live up to the stereotypes? (Won't stop and ask directions, won't talk about my feelings, doesn't like to be interrupted, thinks about sex all the time...)
No. I was determined to keep an open mind as I prepared for my workshop day on the celebratory hot seat.
In fact, I'd already spoken with several husbands whose wives had been through "Celebrating Men, Satisfying Women," and I'd heard nothing but positive reviews. "She doesn't interrupt me anymore." And, "She knows where I'm coming from now." And, "She finally understands that I'm not ignoring her, that I'm just concentrating on doing something else."
The day arrived, and I made my way to "Celebrating Men, Satisfying Women." I was introduced to three other genial, half-nervous men. Only one of us had been through this experience before, and the rest of us didn't know what to expect. But we were assured multiple times that it would be a validating moment for us. These women would be hanging on our every word; they'd laugh; there'd be tears; they'd be taking notes. And all we'd have to do was get vulnerable, open up, and put our honest opinions out there.
The vehicles designed to help us expose our feelings were dozens of questions written by the women themselves. We were told to choose a few questions each from the pile, and then all four of us men would discuss the questions we chose.
We were led into the room to a warm round of applause. "The moment you've all been waiting for!" the workshop leader said. At the edges of their seats, with name tags on and notebooks in their laps, were 50-odd women, aged 25-ish to 60-ish, who'd been immersed in the gender lessons of Alison Armstrong since early the day before. We introduced ourselves briefly and got down to business.
How important is a woman's physical appearance for you? (Very.)
What could a woman do to make you feel powerful? (Validate us with good words.)
What do you think about a woman who sets a clear boundary with you? (Men appreciate resolution and decisiveness, in both men and women.)
If you're single, what do you think about a woman asking you out? (We all wish they would!)
What qualities do you admire about your mother? (Fiery, spunky, strong-willed, caring.)
What keeps you attracted to a woman? (People -- not just women -- should always keep growing and trying new things and maintaining their senses of wonder.)
What do you think about women paying for dates? (We all wish they would!)
How does a woman's smile affect you? (It's all about eye contact and smiles. If a woman looks at a man and smiles, she'll flat out make his day.)
What would you tell your son about women? (Women are amazing, mystical creatures. No. Seriously. They're just regular folks like you and me. No, but really, they're amazing and mystical and powerful. Oh, never mind. Good luck, son. I don't know a damn thing about women.)
The four of us sat in front of the 50 of them and we laid it out there, laughing, remembering, imagining, and opening up for all we were worth. I must say that it was very gratifying to think out loud and be listened to that way.
At the end of our hour in the hot seats, we were told to do two more things for the women in the room. They wanted us to tell them what we love about women, and they wanted us to pretend that we each had a megaphone and imagine that we could say any one thing that every woman on the planet would be able to hear.
I volunteered to go first. I said that my megaphone statement and the answer to what I love about women would conflict a little bit. Because I hated the idea of reducing women to their gender. Just because our genitalia are different, or because men are usually physically bigger and stronger, or because women can have babies, or because we're socialized a certain way from the time that we're born, it doesn't mean that we're necessarily fundamentally different. I said that I like feminine traits in general -- softness, gentility, intuition, spontaneity, artfulness -- and I admired women, in general, because they usually found those feminine traits easier to come by. The masculine world we live in -- full of wars, power struggles, and money hunger -- needs more femininity, in general.
So I gave my contradictory message and told the women to stop perpetuating gender stereotypes but also to maintain their femininity. I told them that I love them for their femaleness, but that I also loved it when they could demonstrate male traits as well: being aggressive, logical, and efficient. I told the women that their bodies -- the vessels by which new human life is carried into the world -- are the most beautiful physical material on the planet, and as such their bodies should be cared for and nurtured. But then I had to qualify that statement: looking good means caring about how you look, not looking like Pamela Anderson. And I told these women to be themselves, to interrupt men when they needed to, and to talk about their feelings and so on. Opinions and deep thoughts aren't just for men.
And then the other men spoke, and the women applauded, and a few of the women even stood up to thank us. "You've helped us so much today," one of them said. "Thank you for coming here." And the last words that rang in our ears, before we were ushered out of the room to a standing ovation, and even though we had been there only for an hour and the women had done all the hard work, were these: "You're heroes." True or not, they were good words to hear.