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Voices | Don Aucoin

The measure of a man

By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / October 3, 2009

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‘What does it mean to be a good man?’’

Tom Matlack has wrestled with that question in his own life, and it’s at the heart of “The Good Men Project: Real Stories From the Front Lines of Modern Manhood,’’ a new anthology of essays he co-edited in which male writers describe the challenges they have faced as fathers, sons, husbands, and workers.

To a certain degree, of course, those roles are inseparable.

“You can’t really talk about fatherhood without talking about what it was like to be a son, or what it’s like to be a husband, and what it’s like to live up to a professional career,’’ notes Matlack, 44, of Brookline. “How do you balance all that, particularly at a time when, at some level, the world is falling apart?’’

By that, he means the recession. Men have accounted for more than 70 percent of the 7 million jobs lost since the recession began in December 2007. For many men, the loss of a job is an existential event that cuts to the core of their being. If you are what you do - which is how many guys see it - then who are you if you no longer do what you once did?

Perhaps it’s just coincidence, but men seem to be under the cultural microscope at the moment, with a focus on the ways they cope, or don’t, with suddenly changing roles.

The new film “The Boys Are Back’’ stars Clive Owen as a sportswriter who becomes a single parent when his wife dies of cancer. This week saw the premiere of “Hank,’’ a sitcom starring Kelsey Grammer as a Wall Street executive who gets downsized and tries for the first time to really do his other job: being a father.

President Obama is being closely watched not just for how he handles that whole Leader of the Free World thing, but also for how he performs as a father of two young girls and as a husband in a marriage that appears to be an equal partnership. “Mad Men,’’ which recently won its second consecutive Emmy for best drama series, gives us a weekly glimpse of men (circa 1963) behaving badly - as husbands, as fathers, as bosses - while social change is beginning to rumble beneath them.

Into that context comes “The Good Men Project.’’ (All proceeds from the book, and from an accompanying DVD documentary, will go to a nonprofit foundation to help at-risk men and boys.) The project grew out of conversations a year ago between Matlack and James Houghton, his former business partner. They concluded it might be illuminating to find men willing to write about both the big turning points in their lives as well as how they navigate the day-to-day pressures of marriage, parenthood, and careers.

“In general, guys have not been socialized to tell their stories,’’ Matlack says. “There’s so much out there in terms of how women tell their stories - their emotional vocabulary, if you will. Part of what we’re trying to do is say that as a guy you don’t have to tell your story like you would on ‘Oprah.’ There’s a way to do it that’s true to who we are. As men, it comes down to telling the truth about moments in our lives that were turning points.’’

Matlack had one himself in September 1996. His wife kicked him out of the house just a few days after it was announced that the Providence Journal Co. was being sold to the A.H. Belo Corp., a major (albeit controversial) deal that Matlack had negotiated as the ProJo’s chief financial officer.

“I was focused on my work and living to excess in any number of ways,’’ he admits. “There weren’t a lot of people in my life who were particularly proud of me.’’

He spent that Christmas apart from his 9-month-old son and 2-year-old daughter, and the marriage ultimately ended in divorce. Today he is remarried, with a 4-year-old son, and he measures success differently than he once did. In that reappraisal, he thinks he has plenty of company.

“Many men are looking in the mirror, saying, ‘This is crazy. I can’t do this,’ ’’ Matlack says. “My sense is that men are emphasizing relationships more than work: the joy of fatherhood, the desire to be in a marriage that works, that has more intimacy, that’s not just a passing, superficial thing.’’

Granted, he adds, “Women have been talking about that forever.’’

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

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