I didn’t really know what to expect of the men’s group meeting. I knew one or two of the organisers of the event and I chatted with them as the men began to arrive, bustling about pouring coffee and tea while chewing on biscuits. Although I shared the same hair colour as most of the men (well at least those that had it) I was significantly younger in years. Worry crept into my head. These men wouldn’t want to take part in my research I thought. They wouldn’t understand what I was trying to achieve, or so my worries led me to believe.
As the room filled with approximately 20 men or so, I sat on the end of a brown leather couch with two older men. Another man sat to my left in an office type chair. We turned to each other and gave a nod, and like the beginning of most Irish conversations we commented on the weather. Once the formalities of cold snaps, frost and terrible winds had been addressed, the older man told me about his motorised bicycle. Now to be honest I wasn’t expecting this man to be cycling a bicycle at all, let alone a motorised one! He was a fascinating character, gentle in manner with deep piercing green eyes tucked in under bushy grey eyebrows.
The training began with a general introduction, then into the topic of multiple intelligence theory and an overview of learning styles. We then divided into group work, to discuss our own intelligence type and learning style. I was grouped with three men, all in their mid to late seventies. The man with the motorised bicycle, Des*, took the lead in the activity. He began by telling us his name and then went around the group asking the men theirs. We began our discussion and what unfolded amazed me. My preconceptions and assumptions came to the fore. I had under estimated these men. Although slow in movement, gentle in voice and quiet, these men were intelligent, sharp and thoughtful, with experiences behind them I hadn’t imagined.
After the group work, the training pushed on, and eventually we were to reflect on what we enjoyed doing, and what it was we did that we “lost time” in doing. My group reformed and Des took the lead. The man on the end of the couch, Tom, told us for him it was his work he enjoyed most and lost time in doing. He was an IT specialist, and had worked with computers since the 1960’s. The other men were impressed to say the least. They said they didn’t understand computers and although Des had done a course in them, he still didn’t know how to use one. Tom tried convincing Des and the other man Jim that they should try to learn how to use computers and encouraged them to get a smart phone! He then demonstrated how he could use his Sony smart watch to check emails and how he could voice command his smart phone. “Jesus! This is like Star Trek” Jim blurted, “Can you believe it?” We laughed.
Jim told us that he also loved work and before he retired would lose time in the shop he owned. Now he takes long coastal walks and “the scenery is beautiful” he told us.
For Des, he remember how as a young boy he would lose time in a little hermitage he made for himself. Near his childhood house, he told us, there was a thicket of brambles. He managed to drag a sheet of linoleum under the brambles to form a base, over which he scattered piles of pine needles. Over the thicket he draped a tarp. The brambles pierced the tarp, and Des said the light used to shine through in glistening rays. It sounded magical. It was here that time passed without notice for Des.
But Des told us then of how something really terrible had happened to him when he was sixteen. I was quietly aghast at his revelation, but the other men did not flinch, they just sat quietly and listened. We were all strangers to Des, yet he felt safe enough and comfortable enough to share this terrible misfortune that had befell him. Des told us, this incident had a terrible affect on him and “for ten years I went into myself, I didn’t do well”. But at the age of twenty-six Des started to come through his ordeal - “others had gone on and progressed; got degrees, families. I had just started to come round and had been left behind”. For him he began reading and writing. “I loved writing essays and loved reading. When I began reading I became interested in poetry, philosophy and theology. This helped me greatly”, he said. Des still writes and enjoys the art of Haiku – the Japanese art of short poetry. He said he’s also still waiting on all the royalties from his writings to start flooding in, but it hasn’t happened yet!
I was moved by Des’ story and impressed at how the other men had gently listened. Then their attention turned to me, it was my turn to share. I told the men of my love of painting, how I could get lost for hours while working on a canvas. The process of mixing paint and applying paint to canvas, I find thoroughly relaxing and distracting; it is a retreat into my own world. The men nodded and offered how they wished they too could paint.
After this group discussion, the room of men came back as a whole. The training wrapped up and an open discussion unfolded. The room was actually made up of three small men’s groups, who had come together for the morning to take part in the training. The facilitator invited each group to tell us about their men’s group and what their group does. The men spoke about trips they had been on, guest speakers who had given talks, activities they enjoyed and things they hoped to do in the near future. Discussion ranged from philosophy to film, health to rheumatoid arthritis. One man, Andrew, told us how, if he doesn’t change position every thirty minutes he completely seizes up “if you don’t use it, you lose it!” he proclaimed and the room laughed; he also told us he was “a grumpy old bastard” and one of the best exercises for older men was gardening, even though he “bloody hates it” himself!
The facilitator then invited me ‘the man who has come a long way to be here today’ to tell the men a little about my research, given some of them are going to be participants in some focus groups. I told the men in lay terms what I was up to and as I finished the men began talking. Some of the organisers were visibly surprised at the level of engagement and what began to unfold. My topic had caught the men’s attention and they began sharing their views on drugs and alcohol, and on younger men and the youth of today, to which the facilitator thankfully intervened “Oh now hold on! Hold it there men! Save it for the focus groups, wait until then! Jesus Clay, you’ll have no problem getting these men talking, you just wont be able to shut them up!” I laughed. “Brilliant!” I thought. My focus groups will be lively judging by the men’s reaction.
After the training was complete some men approached me to ask questions about my research and express their interest in taking part. We headed into another room for soup, sandwiches and cake. The conversation flowed from one topic to another and I did my best to take it all in.
This was the first men’s group I had attended and I must admit I really enjoyed it. I am use to working with young men who are often rough, rowdy and ready for action; however, this was a new energy for me. The atmosphere around these men was still, gentle and warm. These men were comfortable in their own skin, tolerant of each other, they weren’t trying to compete with each other nor assert themselves over one another. They were happy to be simply in each other’s company. I had arrived with my own preconceptions and assumptions but when I left, I brought with me new understanding and appreciation for age and what it brings with it. I actually wished I could have spent a little more time with these men, I enjoyed their company and look forward to hopefully seeing them at some of my focus groups!
*Pseudonyms used throughout.
Clay Darcy, February 2015