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Life as Performance Art

    When I was old enough I joined the Odd Fellows lodge. There wasn’t much choice in the matter, as the men in our family had been members for over a century. I was initiated and encouraged to attend their monthly meetings, which I did.  At first, if only because it was new, I found it interesting. It wasn’t long before it became a repetitive ritual of opening and closing the lodge, with a little business sandwiched in. After the meeting was over the fellows adjourned to the upstairs dining hall for their “Big Feed.”  Big Feed usually meant bologna sandwiches or deep discount donuts.
    The only part I found interesting were some of the members who had a lot of history in their past and were eager for an opportunity to tell their stories.  Two of them were Doughboys in WWI.  Bill Hornseth was quick off the mark to get an amateur radio license and sent code back and forth with Marconi.  Slim the Barber moment of fame was when he cut (perhaps only in his imagination) “Creepy” Al Karpis’s hair when he was part of the Ma Barker Gang.  My favorite was Fred Dahle who had been Dr. Mayo’s chauffer and bodyguard and met many interesting characters. 
    What I did not realize that the real purpose of these lodge meetings was not the liturgy and ritual of opening and closing the lodge, nor the business session, but the Big Feed, albeit not the food itself.  I knew some of the members came very earlier, far earlier than necessary to prepare, and some of them would stay well after the clean-up was done.
     It was only much later, and after many more life experiences, that I understood the dynamics.  The history and ethos of the organization was not the most important thing, nor were the refreshments.  Rather, it was always the private conversations between two or three men. For some members, the organization was merely the platform or medium that made these conversations possible.
     Tragically, over the past decade or so, many of the old fraternal groups have either died out. In part, it is because their original purpose, to care for the widows and orphans of deceased members, was no longer as important as it had been in the past. Various state and federal government agencies took over, providing financial, housing, education, and food assistance.  Fraternal nursing and retirement homes were bought out by for profit corporations.  They suffered from an inability to draw in new members.  The original justification for many groups had evaporated, and without a defined purpose, they began withering away.
     Another reason for their rapid decline in recent years was the Pandemic and Great Shut-Down.   Like almost everything else, the lodges were ordered to close their doors to help stop the spread of Covid-19.  Even when all clear was given, many of them never came back. Some members had passed away; others, after two years, no longer saw the need to attend lodge meetings because they had found other things to do.
    Finally, society changed. Well before the recent emphasis on DEI – Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion – some of the more assertive feminists raised their objection to any form of exclusion. They sued, and often won the right to join golf courses clubs, and private schools that had once been all male.  In turn, hoping to avoid either a lawsuit or “bad optics” many businesses and corporations sent a clear message that their employees needed to drop their membership in male-only organizations.
     Even some of the more liberal-progressive churches and denominations ended groups that were specifically for men or for women.  I have talked with men from several different churches about this, and they said that they had been told by their church board the long-running Men’s Prayer Breakfast was to be disbanded because it did not fit the times.  Everyone had to have the right to be part of any organization.
     As much as we can appreciate inclusivity, saying farewell to men’s groups is not a good thing.  Traditionally, men have not opened to others about important matters in their life. Part of it we learned in school about never complaining, and to “suck it up” if we were physically or emotionally hurting.  Part of it is because it is far easier and emotionally safer to talk with someone who has many of the same shared experiences.
     Strangely enough I finally began understanding this male dynamic when an old friend from Sunday school and I were talking about the past. Our mothers were the best of friends, and they would be the first to arrive and last to leave a meeting. It’s because they had something in common – each had the challenge of a child who was on the high end of the autism spectrum (what used to be called Asperger’s Syndrome) before it was diagnosed as a variant form of learning.  Suffice it to say, we two gave our mothers plenty to talk about, and thank goodness they had the medium of Sunday school so they could support each other.
     That’s the way it is with men, too.  Sort of.  It takes longer for most men to open up.
     Going back to when I joined the Odd Fellows almost half a century ago, some of the old boys had fought in the trenches in WWI, younger men had lived through the Great Depression and World War Two; some of the fellows a little older than me had been in Korea.  They were all proud of their service, and rightfully so, but they were not going to open up very much with an outsider who hadn’t been there.
      My father was that way, even though he was stationed at a medical base in Oklahoma, and never saw combat.  He saw and heard things in the operating room and the wards that he would talk about only with other men who had the same experiences. Only another GI would understand.
     I have been part of men’s church organizations where, after the meeting or event is over, the important conversations take place. They happen in the kitchen when two or more men are leaning against the counters, or in the parking lot while leaning against their cars.  Far more often than not, those conversations and mutual support are the most important thing that could happen.
     It’s when one man slowly and tentatively mentions that he is worried about his wife’s deteriorating memory, or  has an adult child who still hasn’t found him or herself.  It happens when they finally open up about how lonely they are since they retired, or how frustrating it is that they don’t have the stamina of a half century ago.
     They don’t want someone to “fix” their problem.  All they want is a chance to talk and be heard in a safe environment.
    The demise of the fraternal organizations and other groups is leaving a huge a vast amount of lonely people. It is making very real the sharp warning message from many physicians who tell us that acute loneliness is the root cause of most of our illnesses and an early death.

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