AUTHOR: Tom Peery
PUBLISHER: Unengineered Encounters
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Although this book reads more like a novel about one man's journey, mine, my intent is to encourage you--whether you are a man or woman--to have a fulfilling life.
At seventy years of age, I now understand why what makes me a man is as much about how I pay attention to the journey as where I end up. I invite you to consider letting some of my situations be subjects of discussing your life with someone you love.
So, what made this man? My father taught me how, with logic and by being "right." "Cool heads prevail" was his mantra. He wanted me to be like him: provide for my family by getting an engineering degree at the same college as him, then devoting myself to an engineering career in one corporation. He believed and acted like men were the superior gender.
Though I admired my father, I resented his tactics and iron-fisted rule. Then I grew up unconsciously copying him in nearly every way. Once I left home, I even treated him as a competitor rather than a mentor, and worked for one of his company’s competitors rather than joining his. I wanted to rise higher in my hierarchy than he had in his, and on my own, thank you.
For the first half of my life, I served my upper management to benefit my career, without ever disagreeing with them. I could create stalemates with opposing factions, or criticize another man for a single belief he carried. I was competing for power, wealth and status. Now, having crossed mid-life, I don't like those very aspects of many male leaders today.
My challenge was to bring balance to my life having started as a workaholic. I speak openly about how much of my redirection after I retired early came from unengineered--unplanned--encounters. One of those encounters that came during my career was meeting a woman I considered my equal. Then Dad developed Alzheimer's and needed my help. I retired earlier than I’d ever intended, without a plan.
My son, Tristan, asked me a question on the eve of his twenty-first birthday . He wondered aloud: "Tomorrow, I'll be old enough to buy booze and go to strip joints, so, Dad, what makes a man?" That conversation prompted me to more deeply consider my own past life and the choices I had made.
After reading different men’s remarks on the subject, I knew I couldn't respond for every man, but only for myself. It took me sixteen years.
Now, still learning about life and balancing, I don't think I will ever say, "Okay, I'm there, this is what made me a man." What I can tell my son, and my daughter Katherine, is how I came to include relationships and my spiritual and emotional lives in my equation. May my story encourage you to be more open with those you care about.
--- Tom Peery
Excerpts from the Book
(Age 18-21, College years at a small, all-male engineering school, whose sports teams were the “Miners.”)
Later that year at a home football game, a fraternity upperclassman and I practiced being rambling wrecks. It was a cold, bleak winter day, and our team was playing against a coed university’s team. At half-time, I went for hot drinks at our stadium’s only concession stand with Rich, who at 175 pounds was an NCAA wrestling champion—which is to say he was a tough guy.
Our football field was outdoors, at ground level and small, with wooden bleachers painted grey on both sidelines. The opposing student sections faced each other across the field on one end. The only snack bar on the grounds was centered under the Mines-side stands. As Rich and I approached it, with him on my left, coming toward us through the heavy crowd was an attractive, curvaceous, blonde cheerleader from the visiting team. From the moment we saw her, we both silently admired her face and her tight cream-colored sweater with a matching, knee-length pleated skirt. She was quite a contrast to Mines’ cheering squad of raunchy guys or, for that matter, anyone we saw all week on campus.
Taking her first sip from a large-sized cup of coffee, she was out in front of their other cheerleaders, who waited for their drinks. About a head shorter than us, she passed by on Rich’s side, her perfume wafting into our faces, her perfectly made-up eyes focused straight ahead. Rich stopped, grabbed my left elbow and rotated me a hundred and eighty degrees around him as he turned to his left. We were then walking directly behind her, with Rich on her left. I looked at him with a “what?” expression. He leaned over, whispered that we should try to capture this cheerleader, and described how we could do it. Sounded good to me.
Our hot drinks forgotten, Rich and I parted slightly and at the same time stepped forward on either side of her. In one motion, we each slid our hand that was nearest her, thumb up, between her body and upper arm just underneath her armpit, gripped her arm, and lifted her up off her feet. It happened so fast she didn’t even drop the cup of coffee she was holding in her right hand.
Her face jerked to her left, and she saw the big white “M” on Rich’s dark blue Mines wrestling jacket. Before either of us could react, she swung her right forearm in front of her and threw her entire cup of hot coffee straight into Rich’s face.
I was shocked. How painful that must be for Rich! I looked past her at him. I couldn’t see her face, so I don’t know if her eyes widened the way mine did because as the coffee hit his face and drained down his neck and over his jacket collar neither Rich’s big grin nor his grip on her arm changed even a fraction. Nonchalance personified. I was impressed.
Still holding her off the ground, we swung to our left and carried her up the ramp to our student section before anyone could help her. When we made a U-turn and faced our bleachers to start up the steps, the Miners packing the stands saw our prize and roared their approval. Her body tensed against my hand. We carried her up the right-side stairs about fifteen rows, and I led us between benches to the middle of the row, where other men gave us enough room to sit down with her between us. We held on to her arms.
Now the center of attention of our whole section, she demanded to be released, which brought laughter from the men. Rich and I assured her of her safety, but we did not let her go.
Their cheerleaders who had witnessed her abduction raced across the field to alert their student supporters. We watched them fan out into their stands, to point across the field toward our sea of dark blue and black-hooded sweatshirts, jackets, and stocking caps, until all had located our captive’s white sweater. From our side, their crowd looked like a beehive, everyone standing up and milling around, but stuck in the stands, not seeming to know what to do.
The young woman between Rich and me must have been concerned when she saw her side’s hesitation, held as she was against her will, among inebriated, aggressive, half-shaven men she did not know, wondering what was going to happen. But laughing with my friends, this young woman’s thoughts and feelings were the furthest things from my mind. The crowds in the public sections on both sides of the field did not seem aware of her situation.
Big Steve and the rest of the Mines section stood taunting the other student section, begging them to try to come and get her. Eventually, a solitary man descended from her side and began walking around the end zone, directly toward us. He seemed more determined than hurried. As he passed the goalposts, Rich asked her who he was.
“My boyfriend,” she replied, and when Rich announced him to the rest of us, another roar went up. He wasn’t a huge guy, maybe 180 pounds, no more than six-feet tall, but he was on a mission, for which he was apparently willing to accept great hardship.
When he arrived at our bleachers, he entered and tried to start up the stairs toward us, but many Mines men were standing up and in his face. He was jostled and bumped and shoved, but he kept his eyes locked on hers and ignored all the rest. On he came as best he could, maneuvering for each advance toward his trembling girlfriend. Again, I didn’t think about her then, but I imagine she had become as concerned for him as for herself.
At last they were within earshot, two rows apart, and her boyfriend stopped with his arms at his sides, avoiding eye contact with Rich and me. In an even voice, he asked her if she was okay and she said she was. She fell silent again, not having said a word since her initial demand was laughed away. There began a Spanish Inquisition-style negotiation for her release between her boyfriend and a host of male questioners wanting to know how much this guy wanted his girl, and what he was prepared to do, or not do, to get her.
He remained passive, holding her gaze while he responded to his hecklers. After some minutes, impressed with his courage, and no one in blue believing it a proper RF to be a few hundred against one, I made eye contact with Rich, he nodded, and we both released our grip on the cheerleader’s upper arms. She stood up immediately, reached down for her boyfriend’s outstretched hand, stepped down between two Miners to join him, then followed, single-file, his arduous descent through the tangle of harassing Miners, who made it hard for him but not for her.
When the couple at last exited our bleachers, they slowly returned to their stands, his arm over her shoulders, their heads leaning together, walking, talking. I’m sure she told her story more than a few times. As for me, I laughed with everyone else about capturing her, not thinking about what it must have been like for her or the trouble we might have caused ourselves. I recounted Rich’s reaction to the hot coffee in his face, what I’d thought was a manly reaction if I’d ever seen one. And the next
time an RF erupted at our fraternity house, I avoided Rich.
Chapter 16: Don’t Spill Your Guts
The church’s Sponsor Couple program, which Mance and I led, beginning in February, matched married couples like us one-on-one with engaged couples once a week for six weeks. Each meeting began with all four individuals answering a questionnaire about some aspect of his or her experience growing up, and how they viewed it now. Each couple then met separately to compare answers, and then everyone came together to talk about how it went.
In the third year of these structured meetings, Mance and I discovered that we were not answering every question the way we had in the first year. Talking about it showed us we were changing, and that neither of us was exactly the same person as when we married. In other words, I could see that my past experience with Mance would not always predict the future. Just because she felt one way last year did not necessarily mean she’d feel the same way this year.
With that revelation, I saw why my logical, engineering problem-solving approach, that I learned to analyze machines, would not work on people, as I had once believed it would. My wife was not the same person day after day. To really hear what she was saying at any given time, I had to listen. I couldn’t assume anything.
The next month, (I read) M. Scott Peck’s next book, The Different Drum,which discussed relating to others . . .to address my sense of being a stand-alone, independent island. The book discussed engineering a sense of community among people.
I was taken by his ideas of relating to others, which ended with remarks about Peck’s Foundation for Community Encouragement, who promoted people meeting intentionally to practice his principles. I phoned the foundation for the next scheduled workshop and signed up.
The workshop was held in Stamford, Connecticut, where I had begun my first corporate sales job twenty-six years earlier, on the bottom rung of a corporate ladder, competitive with every man around me. This time, Stamford would host a very different beginning. It began on my forty-eighth birthday.
For two days, forty people from all walks of life—mostly strangers—encountered one another sitting in a circle of chairs. We had in common a desire to build up a community, with little idea of how to do it. . . we began with silence.
Sitting quietly among strangers was not comfortable for me. As the silence dragged into minutes, I fidgeted in my seat, wanting to get started. I didn’t realize we already had started. I searched my handouts for an agenda. I found nothing but a list of suggested times for breaks and meals. What was I supposed to do? I couldn’t even sit on a beach for very long without busying myself with volleyball or some other activity. Idleness was not in my comfort zone.
At least I had read The Different Drum. And the book’s notion so touched me that I decided to sit still to see what happened. At last, a woman introduced herself with her name and the city she lived in. Then others did the same, and some began saying a few more words, and finally some conversation began as people explored what others had said, usually confirming some common ground between them. However, as time passed, people began to disagree with one another.
One man spoke of his hardship coping with a possible loss in his life. An older woman sitting beside me told him what his attitude about it should be. Others asked her: “How can you give him advice?” “What makes you think you can tell him what to do?”
I silently agreed with the outspoken men and women who challenged her for trying to fix the man, because I didn’t like it when someone tried to tell me that I had a problem. I usually denied that I did. I was only nine months out of my corporate career, during which I had chosen not to reveal any of my personal or family hardships. I’d believed that personal failures, like a divorce, could be detrimental in performance reviews. I was probably right. At the time.
The group kept at the woman who was trying to help. She went silent, and the group facilitators remained silent too, letting strangers argue with each other about her qualifications and background and whether or not she had the right to say what she had said. Where was this going? Finally, everyone agreed they didn’t know enough to really decide and all eyes turned to the woman. Someone asked: “Okay, what is your story?”
“I don’t usually tell my story,” she began, “but if you really want to know…” And so she confided in all of us. She started with her family and her normal life, all of which had changed five years earlier when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She spoke of her struggle with conflicting diagnoses and her fight to save her own life. Her trials, her agonies, her insights. How her family had split, some supporting her desire to live, others believing the doctor’s death sentence. She described her own inner dilemma and, finally, her miraculous recovery. The key attitude that had sustained her was the advice she had just given the man.
I cannot now remember her advice, but given in light of her experience, it was profound. Dead silence held the room for several minutes. I didn’t know what others were thinking, but I wanted to turn and hug her. The wisdom in her suggestion was clear, and I wondered how many people’s words of wisdom I had rejected in my own life, thinking them ignorant of my situation or telling them I had no problem that needed their comments. If this woman had told us her story before she had given the man her advice, I would have accepted her words immediately, without question.
The group dynamics continued to play a role in our interaction with one another. A second woman was pushed by the group to tell her story too, after she yelled at a man for his sexist comment. Her story at first seemed to bear no connection to his wisecrack, but then we all understood when she told us she was raped as a young woman. Talking more about the event and its effect on her life, she became more and more emotional, until her anger rose again and spilled over. Furious with her attacker who was responsible for so much pain in her life, she slid out of her chair onto her knees, and pounded the carpeted floor with her fists, screaming at the rapist in her past.
I sat about a quarter of the circle away from her, stunned. Her victim’s view of sexual assault contradicted what I knew about sex, and went against everything I’d heard young men say about girls in high school. Back then, we had passed around pictures of nudes and slighted our so-called prospective conquests, proclaiming: “Even when it’s bad, sex is pretty good!” “Don’t girls really mean yes, when they say no?” “When they dress that way, they’re looking for sex.”
In those days, most conversations ended up being about sex. We could turn anything into innuendo. If a guy loaded his fishing gear into his car trunk, and said, “It fit in so easily,” I replied, “That’s what my girlfriend said!”…even though I was still a virgin. And that’s just one example. I paid plenty of attention to a man’s role in sex, but none to whatever feelings might be involved, since I denied my own. The pornographic magazines and videos I had access to portrayed women as being willing, so we had joked, “When rape is inevitable, shouldn’t they just lean back and enjoy it?”
I hadn’t talked about any of these assumptions, or questioned them, until the moment that woman on her knees inside our circle shrieked in anger, then dropped her voice and turned inward to whisper about her shame. When she at last returned to her chair with tears streaming down her cheeks, most of the other women seated in the circle cried too. No one spoke. I sat and accused myself: Good grief, all those years, I just went for it.
A facilitator mercifully called for a break, and a crowd gathered around the woman. I walked alone outside to gather my thoughts: How did women back then feel when they knew I was interested only in sex? Then, a realization closer to home:
How many men like me did my sister try to date? Then even closer: How many of them will my thirteen-year-old daughter meet?
I had never talked to another man about this, but I know I was not the first man to suddenly find himself staring at men’s sexual aggressiveness from the perspective of his own daughter.
Then came Mance, with a surprise opportunity for me to face a new fear. In disguise. “You’re not going to believe this,” she announced, arriving home shortly after I returned from camping out in New Mexico. As a travel agent, her manager had offered her a free familiarization tour. Mance dropped a Finnair pamphlet in front of me—a January travel package to Finland, in Lapland, one hundred twenty miles north of the Arctic Circle. In the dead of winter. I looked up and her sparkling grey-green eyes told me we were going.
The Jack London novels I had read as a boy had given me the only images I had of being that far north. Frigid cold. Snow and ice. Flat tundra. Continuous darkness in winter. A frozen Arctic Ocean…nothing particularly pleasant. Hostile, in fact.
“Reindeer,” she said brightly. “They have reindeer-drawn sleds and dogsleds and snowmobiles,” adding three new experiences to my bleak internal picture. “And northern lights!” Aurora borealis? Now that is something I have always wanted to see. I was onboard.
Mance continued her research, bringing home daily news that expanded my notions of the North: our room’s private sauna, touring traditional Laplander huts, and skiing, both alpine and cross-country. Then she brought me a brochure of people in orange survival suits jumping into the Arctic Ocean in the wake of an icebreaker. The ultimate polar bear club.
I shivered just thinking about doing that, but the vision wouldn’t leave me. I explored the reason behind it, what I was afraid of. And as I wrote, my inner crowd showed up: Stupid! Ridiculous. Only an idiot would jump into the Arctic Ocean in winter. Why would you want to do that, anyway? What is the point? There is no point!
Then, when came, You could have a heart attack!, I knew fear was beneath all this taunting talk that masqueraded as logical, intelligence-based reasons that a smart person would not do this. Oh, the resistance I had to this event. What fear! And Mance had not even asked if I was interested.
The persistence of the “it’s stupid” line of thought eventually had me wondering if jumping into the Arctic Ocean might be symbolic for overcoming my fears in general. I began telling other people about the idea and they reinforced my initial thoughts. “Lunacy!” one neighbor added. But inside, an ally arrived: You can do this, even if it is scary.
Then rose another part of me that wondered how, after I had told others about it, I could pass up this opportunity. I looked again at that photo but there were no dead bodies on the ice. My ally again: Yes, but, if someone always has a heart attack, how could they advertise it in a brochure? The Finns have cold-water pools in their public saunas. They certainly are not all foolish. If Laplanders do this routinely, then fear or no fear, you can do it. You will do it.
A final dissenter inside my mind moaned…but you must be crazy to even consider it! Mance, who would not do something this dumb either, observed me without comment as I slowly talked myself into it. Our flight was scheduled to leave January 24.
The time went by like a late freight train. Our Finnair departure arrived, and soon Mance and I were flying east across eight time zones. After connecting in Helsinki for the flight north to the Kittila airport, I browsed through Finnair’s January magazine.
Looking over the country map, I was shocked to discover my geography error: Finland does not reach the Arctic Ocean. Instead, Norway stretches all the way across northernmost Finland to Russia. With no Finnish border on the Arctic Ocean, there would be no jumping into it! No orange protective suits needed. Poof! My symbolic quest against fear was over before our plane landed.
On our descent, we saw pine forests everywhere, topped with snow, dotted with leafless birch trees. Then the ski slopes I hadn’t at first expected appeared on a mountain—a “fell” in local language—named Levi, with more than a thousand-foot vertical drop, sixteen lifts, and thirty-six runs. Our hotel was the Sirkantahti—Sirka’s star—nestled at the bottom of Levi in the village of Sirka.
At the hotel’s reception, our hostess for the week, Hannele—pronounced like the land of Puff the Magic Dragon—arrived in a striking red, traditional Laplander’s costume. She welcomed the twenty of us and handed each of us our itinerary. Monday: snowmobile safari at night. Good. Tuesday: Reindeer farm safari. Good. Wednesday: Swim in the frozen lake and sauna.
I had no sooner let go of jumping into freezing water than it was back. Would we have orange jumpsuits? I began to get nervous, and had to stuff a voice out of my hurricane that began, Oh my god…
More details followed: The swimming was to take place in a hole broken through the ice on a frozen lake. Suggested swimming apparel was either a bathing suit, or nothing. Nothing? Wednesday. It was scheduled for Wednesday.
Lapland continued to redesign my first impression of north of the Arctic Circle. There was much more winter light than I had imagined. The sun rose only slightly above the horizon, but it stayed there for three hours, and for more than two hours before and after it was so near to the horizon that it kept us bathed in the soft light of continuous sunrise and sunset. Clouds took on spectacular pinks and roses and blues and violets that drifted across the sky. On clear nights, the stars blazed in the sky, as did the moon. Every soft ray of light reflected off the blanket of white snow covering everything, such that we could even walk outside after dark. And on two nights—I felt so lucky—the northern lights came out to dance, mystical waves of bluish, shimmering, awe-inspiring light.
The Sami people themselves provided the rest of the color. Descendants of the ancient native Laplanders, their brilliantly hued clothing offered splashes of color in the low light. The warmth of these hospitable people, many of whom spoke English, counterbalanced our cold surroundings. Integrating their hot saunas into our daily social lives also helped.
Tuesday night, on the way back to our hotel after riding reindeer-drawn sleighs, Bobby, the twelve-year-old son of one of the men in our group, asked me if I planned to join him in the lake the next day. “Yes,” I said, without even blinking. I later marveled at how calm and resolute I had sounded. Then, suddenly, the day arrived.
I wrote that morning in my journal that I came halfway around the world for this baptism in a lake in order to face my fear. This is why I am here. What I wanted was a better awareness of my rising fear, so that I could decide, when it appeared, whether I wanted to let it deter me, or not.
It was one thing if fear was protecting me from physical injury, but more often it wanted to keep me from being shamed, abandoned, rejected, or embarrassed in front of other people, even strangers. Or to help me avoid criticism, prompted by Dad’s always telling me, “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” Or to prevent me from looking weak or effeminate. How often my fear has held me back! Part of me, the part that wanted to be free to override these fears, imagined me leaping into the ice hole with arms raised, screaming a lusty aikido shout. Right.
We all departed on a bus for the lake in late afternoon, and the absence of the usual chatter among us was obvious. Snow flurries greeted us at a complex of log cabins nestled in the forest, where a middle-aged man awaited, wearing a full Lapland costume from his four-peaked, bright red and yellow stocking cap down to his reindeer-skin leggings and boots. About five feet seven inches tall and husky, he smiled and greeted us in Sami, then in Finnish.
Mance wanted a photo of his outfit and turned to Hannele, “Would you please ask him if it’s all right to take his picture?” His eyes twinkled above his big dark moustache, and he replied in perfect English, “Yeah, but it’ll cost you ten bucks.” His name was Ese (pronounced eh-say) Mella, our jovial host for the lake event.
Ese wasted no time at the bus. We toured only a few shops before he led us down a gently sloping, forty-yard path to the lake, shaped like a cigar. We were somewhere near its middle, with the lake’s frozen flat surface stretching faraway to the left and right. There were perhaps a few hundred yards between the far shore and us.
A dozen feet out on the ice, Ese had chopped a six-foot-diameter hole through the lake’s snow-dusted, ten-inch-thick ice cap, using a pick and shovel, both of which stood nearby to reopen the hole if it froze over again. Two big candles in buckets of sand on either side of the hole added some light to the dim afternoon.
An underwater pump’s bubbling discharge of air kept the exposed water in the hole from refreezing too fast, and a ladder made of white birch poles stood in the hole, sticking up about three feet above the ice cap. The top rung was about the same level as the top of the ice. The air was still and only the pump’s bubbles made any sound.
Okay, no diving into this lake. The hole’s too small. You will have to climb down that ladder into the water. Slowly. Someone asked about the air temperature. “About five below zero, in Fahrenheit,” Ese responded. Right. I shut off the rising inner voice trying to aggrandize this news.
Trooping back through the snow toward the cabins, some shivered, some worried aloud about heart attacks, and others affirmed their refusal to go in the water. We entered a warm, traditionally decorated main room of a log lodge, and sat around a roaring fireplace. Ese brought a tray of mugs filled with a hot, tasty local drink, then invited all of us to meet his lake by first joining him in the sauna.
When I stood up, along with another man and Bobby, the preteen, it surprised me to see Mance already on her feet with two other women. She had not spoken her intentions before, and now remained silent as her steady gaze met mine. She would later say, “How could I go home and tell my children I didn’t do it?” Fourteen people continued to sit, hanging onto their mugs.
Bobby taunted his father, “Come on! Are you afraid?” But his dad remained seated at the fireplace as we willing lake-dippers followed Ese to the segregated saunas. We sat nude, two men and a boy, chatting nervously for about fifteen minutes with Ese in the hundred and fifty degree heat. Then Ese said, “Okay, I’m going first. Wait here. When I let you know, come one at a time, and be sure to pull on these socks before you leave the sauna. Don’t run down there. Walk to the lake.”
“Why the socks?” Bobby asked.
“To keep ice from forming on your feet when you’re walking,” Ese said over his shoulder, as he grabbed a towel and strode naked into the twilight.
“Oh.” . . .