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K, my intermediary, is standing beside me next to a cold firepit in manicured forest just off the center of Woodstock. I've reached him through B, who'd been mentioned by M as an accessible alumnus of the local men's group scene. K's explaining, in full daylight, the ways in which his experience of Justin Sterling's $600 a pop Men's Weekend has helped him find and nurture his male power, which in turn has helped him in all his relationships, from marriage to dear old dad.
K says that the next Men's Weekend is coming up June 2 in Newburgh. They only occur twice a year on the East Coast. He and the other men around the firepit don't think I'll be able to write about local men's teams and what they mean unless I can feel what they have felt.
I'd heard these guys tend to proselytize. A couple of local musicians told me they'd started offshoot men's groups to avoid such evangelism and focus better on manly pursuits. They had warned that official Sterling Men's teams tended to spend inordinate amounts of time trying to identify and lure big men of the community to pony up bucks for the big weekends.
I ask where the $600 goes. They tell me, with forced laughs, that Sterling himself pocketed all the money. I asked whether it was true, as I'd heard, that the weekends involved little sleep or food, lots of aggression and competition, naked body painting, berating, and the occasional fist fight.
"Everything that goes on in the men's weekend is protected by vows of confidentiality," K says. "We couldn't tell you what goes on there if we wanted to and besides, it's an experience you need to feel in your gut to understand, otherwise it can fall prey to over-intellectualization."
T, a boy in his late teens who has been talking about problems he's had with his sister, says the best thing about the men's weekend is the testosterone power one pulls from spending so much time in a room with 200 other men all being real men.
The leader of this team of men, who had originally invited me to join him and the others on a trip to Manhattan to actually hear Sterling speak, steps forward to explain things. "The purpose of the men's weekend is to engage in the process of locating the source of your power by discovering and dissolving the barriers between you and manifesting that power so that you can experience total freedom as only a man can and with that freedom be the man you've always wanted to be," he says. Everyone in the circle nods their heads in agreement.
I note that the statement sounds rote, as if learned. O repeats what he's just said again: "The purpose of the men's weekend is to engage in the process of locating the source of your power by discovering and dissolving the barriers between you and manifesting that power so that you can experience total freedom as only a man can and with that freedom be the man you've always wanted to be."
Another man, Q, says men need to repeat things exactly to get them right. Otherwise, we lose objectivity. Someone else, F, explains things to me in further nuts and bolt fashion. "To get things right a man needs directions."
"Once you decide to do the weekend it's an unalterable decision," K says.
Q shows me what to do if I choose to go. He suddenly cups his testicles in both hands, bends over double and violently bellows out the fiery man words "Fuck It!" with all his might.
K draws a line in the dirt with his Rockport-clad foot.
"Don't worry about the money. We'll find ways of helping you raise that," he says. "As with all of us here, I am certain you will gain immeasurably from doing the weekend. You will strengthen your knowledge of what it is to be a man. I have brought you here, Smart, believing you to be a good man who will not do his fellow men wrong."
The men around the firepit in the tamed wilds of Woodstock all make honest, heartfelt eye contact as I scan their faces. They range in age from late teens to early sixties. I know the private histories of several who have battled depression and breakdowns, creative hiatuses and marital discord in recent years. One of my colleagues here at the Times was once among them. Their sincerity almost aches.
"So tell us, Smart," K asks, his voice shifting slightly from New Age support to pre-teen taunt. "You ready to cross the line and say fuck it? You ready to be a man?"
The Sterling Men's Division teams of Woodstock have been the subject of much talk around town ever since their arrival in the area during the early 1990s. According to current members of two teams of a dozen men each, as well as watchers and ex-members, between two hundred and three hundred local men have gone through over the past ten years. There are also women's teams and Women's Weekends, the last of which took May 5.
I'd had an interest in this field for years. As a kid, I remember James Dickey coming to our home and propositioning my mom, then going on to fame as the author of that early 1970s bulwark of manliness, Deliverance. Or Robert Bly in a poncho declaiming the wonders of maleness over the kitchen table where I noshed, all of eleven, with my brother and sister. It was right around that time when all the professors on the campus where my dad taught hiring coed babysitters so they could all run off on "Extra Sensitivity Training" weekends.
As an adult, I'd tried reading Iron John, Bly's 1990 treatise on male mentorship and the need for guys to get back in touch with their inner wild men. I was having trouble dating, finding work, maintaining happiness as I descended into middle age. I grew uncomfortable with my father and brother. Thinking about myself in male terms seemed to narrow the field of options, at least by half.
But it was never something I really wanted to act upon. For one, I was never asked to join a group. I guess my friends and I are not the team type. Chalk it up to being a writer. I like to observe and comment, to visit but not stay.
I explain all this in the Woodstock woods before the men's team who have invited me in and drawn a line in the dirt for me to cross. They'd asked more questions of me than I of them. As anyone who's tried his hand at reporting knows, it's hard to keep track of things when one's own mouth is moving. Self-consciousness invades one's senses, clouding them. At least, I thought to myself, I'm offering myself to them as much as I'm taking a story from what I'm encountering.
Was there a man I wanted to honor that afternoon? I tell about my Alaskan stepfather, Chris, and how we had to pull the plug on him last fall. Are there any pressing issues in my life as a man? I explain how I'm newly married, about to go through a public ceremony honoring our elopement last November. I worry that I hold on to jealousies when they're unwarranted. I'm not quite comfortable in my new skin.
F says I should trust my gut. My wife's probably cheating. Everyone nods.
No, no, no, I say. That's not what I was talking about. I worry about my worries and have raised myself to honor my doubts. This revelation results in team silence.
What kind of story do I want to write? I explain how many people in our community have opinions about the Sterling groups, having heard from ex-members or angry women about them. Some say they're a cult, espousing an abdication of male responsibility in relationships. There have been documentaries and news exposes about Men's Weekends and EST tie-ins and not-for-profit scams and corporate training programs. I wanted to set the record straight by observing a meeting.
The men around the dormant fire explain how teams and the men in them, as well as the results of the weekends, can be both good and bad, as men are. They tell me that everything I've heard is true, but not because of doctrine. "Men are kind, men are assholes and jerks, men are gentle and loving, they steal and can kill," O says, quietly but firmly. "If a relationship is broken because a man has found his power after attending a Men's Weekend, it means there was already something wrong with that relationship."
Men talk about how important they've found it to be with other men. The stressing of confidentiality is to protect the intimacy of teams. Men can then feel free to share everything they can't share elsewhere in their lives within them. I ask about marriage. K tells me it's different, that he hadn't felt this strong about himself as a man since he was a kid, playing team sports and hanging with his buddies out on Long Island. He saw it as a substitute for the military service he never had. Everyone uses last names to strengthen these team roles.
Q confides that his own marriage got better after his weekend, although there were some rocky moments at first. "It was like I came back a different man. She had married me when I was still a feminist," he says. "It took her a while to get used to my new strength. That can be a problem."
T asks O why the trip to Manhattan was cancelled. O explains that Sterling had called it off for a couple of hours in the afternoon for some reason and new plans had been made. Then why did the other team go, calling us pussies, T continues? O says he will talk more about it later. Not now.
F stands forward and breaks a growing tension by explaining to me what sort of power it is that the Men's Weekend unleashes. "I used to go into Stewart's for coffee each morning and stand in line with everyone and it was as though the guy or girl behind the counter couldn't see me," he says with complete conviction and utter heartfelt seriousness. "After my weekend I came into the Stewart's and it was as though the whole world had changed and I was Mike Tyson. My very power commanded attention."
I stare at the line in the dirt and try to remember whether Stewarts' was self-serve.
"I'm gonna have to ask my wife about this," I say.
No one calls me pussy-whipped. No one says I'm a wimp. I explain that the weekend they want me to "step into the adventure" just happens to fall between my wedding celebration and our honeymoon. K starts to note how my wife might appreciate that, what with the concurrent rise in my testosterone level that could be expected. But O quiets him. He says they can all appreciate my honesty and besides, it's not recommended that anyone try major life changes too soon after a Men's Weekend.
Everyone's asked to name a "win" from the past week. T talks about how he's finally convinced his sister to do the weekend. K speaks about beating a traffic ticket. Q has just finished a six-month contracting job. F's nephew just participated in his first track meet and seemed to finally take to a sport and show his killer instinct, something F had been pushing him to do for over a year. O talks about some inner victory having to do with man's need to recognize and honor his own bullshit, but I don't remember it well because I was to speak next.
I talk about my writing, about finally feeling confident about it. I talk about a long talk I'd had with my wife the night before in which we'd spoken about spirituality and leaps of faith. What was nice was the way we stopped trying to make points and just listened to each other. I wondered whether they were picking up on my bullshit now.
F steps away from the firepit and urinates, the sound of Woodstock traffic in the background quiet.
T. puts his arm around my shoulders and squeezes. O does likewise from the other side. K starts to sum up the three hours we've just spent around what would normally have been a lively fire. He talks about how he's learned how things can change. That morning the plan had been to go to Manhattan with thirty-or-so Woodstock Men to hear A. Justin Sterling, author of What Men Really Want, address his followers. Now here a few of them stood around the fire they stood around at least once a week. Only it was still light. He spoke about what a joy it had been to meet me, Smart, and explain what the Men's teams were about. To look back over the experience of the Men's Weekend that had so changed his and the other men's lives. He said how he'd looked deeply into himself this evening and learned still more about his troubled relationship with his father via the mirrors of other men's experiences. He acknowledged the hurt he felt before coming to the meeting when his six-year old son turned down his offer to come to the men's circle and go with his mom to watch Disney videos instead.
Touching stuff, K's summing up. After a good ten minutes, longer than I've had any man's hands on me outside of a doctor's office, everyone puts their open palms over the imaginary fire and made a whooping sound that crescendoed as they raised their hands and made fists.
We step back over the line in the dirt K had made earlier.
"So, Smart. You going to say Fuck It and step into the adventure?"
I decline. No one pushes me further.
"You want to join us tonight and make bread for the women's weekend over at my house?" K asks. "All men. It should be fun."
No, I reply. I want to get back to my wife and tell her all I've seen and felt. But I now know better than to tell them this. These men, after all, are really trying.
"I got work to do," I say. "Maybe next time." ++
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