In the woods with the Rhode Island Men’s Gathering

Beat the Drum
By PHILIP EIL  |  February 20, 2013

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TAKE IT OUTSIDE On the ice at the W. Alton Jones campus.

In the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower occasionally traveled to the backwoods of Rhode Island to hunt and fish on the sprawling property of oil tycoon W. Alton Jones. On a recent Saturday, though, there is a very different kind of men's retreat underway in those same West Greenwich woods.

Instead of rifles and fishing poles, the men who fill the main lodge of the Environmental Education Center at URI's W. Alton Jones Campus wield dream catchers, paper airplanes, and pasta they're learning to make from scratch. Others sit in classrooms for roundtable discussions titled "Men at Midlife," and "Separating/Carrying On." In the evening, they gather in front of a crackling fireplace for a talent show that includes an acoustic rendition of "This Land Is Your Land" and a dramatic reading of a newspaper article about the 10-foot snow penis constructed in South Kingston after this month's blizzard. Before the s'mores and drum circles that round out the evening, the men lock arms and join together to sing, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." And I'm right there with them, singing "Someday I'll wish upon a star . . . ."

I enrolled in the 21st Annual Rhode Island Men's Gathering with a simple goal: to learn what it means to be a man. But defining masculinity, I learn, isn't necessarily the goal of the RIMG; in fact, the event is more about establishing what masculinity isn't or doesn't have to be. Drinking, competition, and watching sports tend to be the common denominators for men in mainstream culture, RIMG organizer Arthur Snow tells me during lunch. "Here, we don't do any of that."

The other men at our table nod.

Tom Terceira, a 59-year-old graphic designer from Cranston, says he comes here to help broaden the definition of manhood. "It means you can be straight, you can be gay, you can be bisexual, you can wear women's clothes . . . it all is OK." Later in the day, Michael Mathieu, a 28-year-old professional musician (one of the youngest men in attendance; most are between 45 and 65), offers a similar take. "No matter your age, race, creed, sexual orientation, walk of life, career status," he says, "we always say in the opening circle it's a 'judgment-free space' and a space to sort of be safe and be yourself."

If inclusivity and acceptance are two of the pillars of RIMG masculinity, then truth is most certainly a third. While some of the RIMG workshops are a bit touchy- feely for my taste — I passed on "Safe Touch, Trust, and Nudity" which was, literally, a workshop on touching and feeling — I was invigorated by the raw, electric honesty of discussions like "Isolating" and "What Did My Dad (or Mom) Give Me?"

Bypassing introductions, men simply went around the table, describing loneliness, addiction, grief, fear, and, yes, the joys of flatulating freely in an all-male workplace. Some talked about the swirl of emotions — lust, shame — they feel browsing Internet porn at home while their children are asleep upstairs. Others reminisced, through tears, about angry and abusive fathers they simultaneously loved and hadn't quite forgiven. "I can remember the smell of his hands," one man said, his voice cracking. "They were so clean."

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