By Rob Okun
He’s gone. He’s gone. I kept repeating those unreal words on the half-hour drive home that rainy Thursday night. Since I’d been at a meeting, my wife was alone when she answered the door for the police officer who’d come looking for me. He had bad news: my older brother Stuart had suffered a heart attack and was dead. It was March 26, just a few days after we’d returned from New Orleans where we’d gone to meet our recently born second grandson.
Less than 24 hours later I was in the Tampa airport meeting my 27-year-old son Jonah who had flown down from New York to support me on what I came to call “a brothers’ journey.” I was walking the familiar but strangely new path of the mourner.
The sun was shining brightly Saturday morning when Jonah and I arrived in Stuart’s neighborhood. It hardly seemed like a place of death, this lush landscaped community on Florida’s west coast. Even though he’d died at home, when we stepped inside his cottage apartment, I could have easily convinced myself that Stuart was simply away for the weekend. “Sure,” he might have said, “you and Jonah can stay at my place.”
We took it all in—the flat screen television; the books on the coffee table; dishes in the sink.Atop a pile of mail, a copy of the AARP magazine with Bob Dylan on the cover. In the living room, a long bookshelf filled with two-dozen books about Dylan. On one side of the room, a shrine-like exhibit of photographs of our ancestors. On the counter, Stuart’s beloved baking supplies; nearby well-used cookbooks. On the refrigerator hung a black and while photo of Brooklyn Dodgers centerfielder Duke Snider. Yes; this was definitely Stuart’s crib. Like a sudden storm, I started to cry. Hot tears washed over me and I cried out, “Goddamn it! Goddamn it! You left again!”
Jonah was nearby, lighting incense. After gently blowing on the stick to ensure it caught, he looked up at me tenderly. “You okay, Dad?” His voice was soothing. “Yeah,” I said, a catch in my throat. “It just hit me. My whole fuckin’ childhood Stuart was always leaving and I was always getting left. Now, he’s done it again.” Jonah held me more than once those next few days and I—we—discovered that Stuart had organized this father and son road trip, traveling the inner highway of our relationship, seeing how Jonah and I would do together meeting death. I had never loved my son more than during those days at Stuart’s.
My brother was three years and 17 days older than me. That meant that every year—for two and a half weeks—he was four years older. How he lorded that over me. Had he made it to June 10th, Stuart would have turned 68.
As kids, we played a lot of wiffle ball games in the backyard of our parents’ stucco house. If David and Stevie Nissenbaum were around, we’d have both pitcher and fielder; usually, though, it was just the two of us. That was hard for me because when Stuart was done playing—it didn’t matter which of us was at bat, what the score was, even if it was in the middle of a play—he’d leave. “I’m done; I’m going in,” he’d say and walk toward the house. Mouth open, eyes filling with tears, acutely aware of my powerlessness—I was 7 or 8; Stuart 10, 11—I’d sputter, “You can’t quit!” He’d look at me like I was mad and keep on walking.
Despite everything, I looked up to my big brother. He turned me on to Lenny Bruce, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg; to Lightnin’ Hopkins; Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. He introduced me to the harmonica and taught me my first licks. More than 50 years later, I still play. As we got older, I started to see him differently. Yes, he could be funny; but he could be cruel too, especially if I was vulnerable. And he could be kind, letting me hang out with his friends listening to Muddy Waters on his record player. I hungered for the connection. Too often, though, Stuart would be sullen, withdrawn.
He graduated high school in 1965, that momentous year of cultural and social revolutions. He bounced around a couple of colleges before heading west to Berkeley. We didn’t hang out too much during his California years when I lived in Maine and Vermont. We continued to drift apart. We could talk easily about sixties music, but politics was tricky since he now identified as a libertarian. Our most satisfying conversations were about Dylan or the Red Sox. When he turned 30, with no partner and no direction home, I didn’t consider how unfulfilled he might be, how he was spinning his wheels, his life stuck in second gear.
I’m not sure why this insightful, well-read man, a World War II historian who’d taught himself to speak Yiddish, a photographer who’d made powerful black and white pictures of urban homeless people, couldn’t assemble in the right proportions the ingredients necessary to make his own life rise. I was as disengaged from his life then as I was alone when he left me on the wiffle ball field.
It wasn’t until our mother was approaching 80 and in poor health that I witnessed Stuart opening his wounded heart. Mom had lost a leg to diabetes and was in an assisted living facility in western Massachusetts where you were allowed one personal care attendant (PCA) to help you with daily activities. If you needed two you’d have to move into the nursing home. That was Mom’s impending reality. Stuart had a different idea. “What if I move in and serve as the second PCA?” he suggested. It was against the rules of course but the facility liked Mom—and were moved by Stuart’s devotion to her—so they ignored their own policy. So there he was, assisting Mom as she got on and off the toilet, helping her dress. They laughed a lot about how they’d traded places as caregiver and care receiver.
Stuart’s best years came after Mom died and he moved to Florida. In those 12 years he earned a living as a chef doing food demos, and became an accomplished baker who gifted nearly everyone in his life—from his neighbors to his bank tellers—with Key Lime pies, or cookies, muffins, and cakes. I think it was Stuart’s way to keep uncovered the big heart that opened while caring for Mom. The same heart that would rupture in the middle of the night.
My brother lived simply in a “clean, well lighted place,” to quote Hemingway—another writer Stuart introduced me to. He continued to send me links about Dylan, Woody Guthrie, the Red Sox. He sent his nieces and nephew presents. And, in what proved to be his final months, he’d begun unguardedly talking to me about his health—which he’d neglected for a long time. The last time we spoke, not long before he died, he said he was tired. I don’t think he sensed then that death was nearby. It doesn’t matter. He’d left again. Now it’s up to me to find out where he went.
Rob Okun can be reached at email@example.com.
Major league baseball beginning domestic violence prevention workshops at Spring training. The White House launching the It’s on Us initiative to prevent sexual assault. Emma Watson and the United Nations spearheading the new HeforShe movement.
Men promoting gender equality and decrying violence against women is “suddenly” the next new cause. Except it’s not. The issue is, though, finally getting some sustained media attention. That’s good news. Continue reading »
On the Road to Equality
By Rob Okun
The inaugural conference of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities is one sign. The global MenEngage symposium in India was another. The movement of men promoting women’s rights and men’s transformation is not just growing, it’s linking up in greater numbers than ever before. That two major international gatherings—one in New Delhi, the other in New York—took place within four months of one another is a welcome development. Some 2000 delegates—from every continent on the globe—convened in India in November and the U.S. in March for symposia with similar names: Men and Boys for Gender Justice in Delhi and Men and Boys for Gender Equality in Manhattan. Continue reading »
Standing in a sunny courtyard of the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi, I am surrounded by a sea of delegates streaming into day one of the global symposium, Men and Boys for Gender Justice. Organized by MenEngage, an international network of nearly 700 NGOs operating on every continent, it is day one of a symposium that has attracted more than 1000 people from 93 countries. I am one, a member of the North American MenEngage Network (NAMEN). Continue reading »
From New York to New Delhi
By Rob Okun
Entitled menchildren in the National Football League spark renewed attention to the epidemic of domestic violence and child abuse. Brave young women speaking truth to power demand action to halt sexual assaults on college campuses. Pioneering profeminist men from around the world gather in India to engage men and boys to promote gender equality.
In the ongoing effort to transform manhood, the pace has been accelerating. From the White House to the 50-yard line, from Kolkata to Cape Town, the call for men to change, to be allies with women in the work of ending gender-based violence and redefining manhood, is growing louder. From the Obama administration’s ItsOnUs campaign to the Emma Watson–supported United Nations’ HeforShe, opportunities are also growing for men to add our voices to the global conversation about men and masculinities. By the time summer ended, I was feeling the need to slow down, to reflect on what’s been unfolding on the dizzying, windy road to gender justice.
I got my wish to decelerate on the weekend of the autumn equinox. I had been invited to participate in a weekend gathering at the Omega Institute, whose women’s leadership conference for the first time in its 12-year history included men. Continue reading »
“Women want a men’s movement. We are literally dying for it.”
It’s way past time to put on the pads, guys. We’ve got to put our shoulders to the wheel of change if we’re going to stop domestic and sexual violence. Are you ready to suit up for the big game? Except, of course, it ain’t no game; the lives of our daughters and sisters, wives and mothers are on the line. Continue reading »
“A man’s got to do, what a man’s got to do. And a country’s got to do what a country’s got to do.” —Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, July 21, 2014 interview on NBC News
Amid weeks of horror and unconscionable suffering in the Gaza Strip there is a truth hiding in plain sight: Wild West manhood is being played out in the Middle East. Shoot first; ask questions never. Tough talkin’ man up bluster, both from Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—poster boys for a strain of masculinity so toxic it’s infected thousands of young men on both sides. Continue reading »
At Father’s Day this year, it was hard not to think about the fathers whose children were murdered in mass killings. My thoughts turned to the fathers—and mothers—of those slain in Isla Vista, California in the aftermath of Elliot Rodger’s misogynist-fueled rampage. Just as the Sandy Hook fathers felt the ache in their hearts, so do these men. Continue reading »
I’ve long believed that those of us committed to social change—whether achieving gender justice, restoring a threatened democracy, or healing an endangered planet—have greatest success when we accentuate the positive. The bad news seems to take care of itself. At the same time, every day there are committed people around the world advancing a counternarrative—promoting what David Korten years ago dubbed “the great turning.” I’m not suggesting we ignore bad news—Steubenville and Sandy Hook, for example, make that impossible. Still, the media (Voice Male included) have a responsibility to strike a balance and for the most part good news is too often still under the radar.
In the years I’ve edited Voice Male, I’ve seesawed back and forth in search of that balance. As much as the magazine has reported on the bad news (a year ago we devoted half our pages to Sandy Hook), in every issue we’ve worked to incorporate the vision and values of a new possibility for men and masculinities as reflected in the work of the profeminist men’s movement. It is in that movement that I have long seen not just a “hope” to transform conventional ideas about manhood but concrete action to realize it. It’s what motivated me to write and edit the new book VOICE MALE: The Untold Story of the Profeminist Men’s Movement.
There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
—Stephen Stills, “For What It’s Worth”
Is the U.S. population so psychically numb that news of another “school shooting” barely registers? The day before the first anniversary of the gut-wrenching Newtown massacre, an 18 year-old male shot another student and then killed himself as a sheriff’s deputy closed in on him, foiling his plans to use a backpack full of weapons and ammunition on students and staff at a Colorado high school.
I was already on edge about last year’s Connecticut tragedy when the Friday the 13th shooting happened. Continue reading »
By E. Ethelbert Miller, Voice Male contributing editor
By the time you read this, the incident I describe would have happened some time ago. By the time you read this another similar incident could occur.
It was a Sunday and I was on a bus going up 16th Street in Washington,D.C. It wasn’t a crowded bus. There were a few Ethiopian women dressed in beautiful white garments and returning from church. Two men got on and went to the back of the bus. I was reading A Poet’s Craft, a new book by Annie Finch, and was engrossed with where poems come from and how things turn into poems. Behind me I heard the voice of a black man; the angry black man rage that often reminds me of how middle class I’ve become. Continue reading »
One of the awful facts of our age is the evidence that [the world] is stricken indeed, stricken to the very core of its being by the presence of the Unspeakable…[that] too few are willing to see.
When we speak, we are afraid. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.
“What if?…” All of us have uttered those two words at one time or another as we contemplated what might have been. Often our focus is personal. “What if mom or dad had lived long enough to meet the new grandchild?,” for example. Sometimes the focus is global.
In the case of Project Unspeakable—a political meditation on truth, morality and secrecy as much as a compelling new play—the “what if” has profound implications for our times. “What if JFK, RFK, MLK, and Malcolm X had not been assassinated?” the play asks. “What would the world look like if they had lived?” That all four were gunned down within a five-year period—1963–1968—remains a life-altering backdrop to the lives of many who came of age in the sixties. Continue reading »
“I don’t know why people are so reluctant to say they’re feminists. Maybe some women just don’t care. But how could it be any more obvious that we still live in a patriarchal world when feminism is a bad word?”
—Ellen Page, actor
“If the word ‘feminist’ has negative connotations, running away from the word won’t fix that. Whatever new word you come up with will eventually take on the same negative connotations. Because the problem isn’t with feminists; it’s with those who demonize feminism.”
—Rebecca Cohen, cartoonist
With such an onslaught of pressing issues facing those concerned about gender justice today (for starters consider the recent actions to severely restrict women’s reproductive rights by the legislatures in North Carolina, Ohio and Texas, and by Clear Channel in Kansas), the current debate about whether it’s still appropriate to call oneself a “feminist”—or in the case of the magazine I edit, Voice Male , a “pro-feminist”—seems to me to be a huge, politically divisive distraction. Continue reading »
VDay.org invited Voice Male editor Rob Okun to write the newest V-Men column where this editor’s blog first appeared.
In a world where too many men stay silent in the face of discrimination against women—from sexual harassment to domestic and sexual violence—the public statement of a chorus of young Massachusetts male athletes not long before Father’s Day offers a sliver of new hope.
Twenty-two graduating senior athletes from prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. signed a letter to the editor of the school newspaper on May 30 that explicitly endorsed feminism. Continue reading »
I suggest putting a teacher in every gun store.
The National Rifle Association’s public face, Wayne LaPierre, woke me up the other night. No, it wasn’t a midnight phone call; it was a dream. He wanted to know what I’d thought of “the speech.” You know, the insensitive one he delivered last December 21, just seven days after Adam Lanza shot his mother in her bed and then went to Sandy Hook Elementary School and murdered 20 first graders and six school staff before turning one of the weapons in his mother’s arsenal on himself. Continue reading »
WHAT ABOUT THE MEN WHO ARE TRYING TO DO THE RIGHT THING?
That was the thought I had the other day after hearing what was intended as an innocuous joke. “If you took a vote on which is the better gender,” a female friend said, “men would come in second.”
The wry smile that crossed my face quickly faded. Society is so often poised to castigate men that even those working to transform manhood and old school, conventional masculine culture are mostly invisible. Continue reading »
For me, Valentine’s Day is a teachable moment more than a holiday. It’s a perfect time to promote healthy relationships more than romantic gifts and candlelight dinners. Don’t get me wrong. I like a sweet evening out with my honey as much as anybody. I just have a hard time being dreamy-eyed if I’m simultaneously turning a blind eye to the outbreak of domestic and sexual violence still plaguing us. It’s a disorder very difficult to treat. Continue reading »
Voice Male contributing editor ALLAN JOHNSON, a member of the magazine’s national advisory board, has written several books, including The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy and the domestic violence novel, The First Thing and the Last. The article below, “Fatal Distraction: Manhood, Guns, and Violence,” is featured in the print edition of the Winter issue of the magazine. It is also featured on his website, www.agjohnson.us, where readers can see a range of his writings.
As I write this, it’s been only a few weeks since the mass murder of children and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut, less than 50 miles from my home. I have grandchildren of the same age as the children who were killed. So, I’m finding it especially difficult to listen to the latest national conversation about gun violence, because, like all the others, it’s being conducted in a way that guarantees that such violence will continue. Continue reading »
By Rob OkunThere’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound Everybody look what’s going down
“For What it’s Worth,” by Stephen Stills (Buffalo Springfield, 1966)
In the wake of Adam Lanza’s murderous rampage, men in particular, must not stay silent. There’s an epidemic in our “man culture” we can ill afford to locate on the periphery, ceding center stage to the narrow gun control debate. Continue reading »