Annual camp get-together helps males develop a way of talking about their problems with like minds
Summer's normally beginning to wind down in the last week of February when these men go camping. This year, though, the spell of good weather that had us wondering whether an excellent summer was turning into a drought had barely begun.
The campground, it must be said, is not the Kiwi classic, that canvas city of intersecting guy ropes where you can have a yarn with the bloke two tents along without raising your voice. It's in pine forest that's been none-too-prettily cut back from the camping area to minimise the fire risk, and the view is over a lake you can't swim in because of the farm run-off.
But 20 minutes' walk through cathedrals of trees or five minutes' drive is the northernmost part of Pakiri Beach. In the shadow of Te Arai Pt, the only break in the long, smooth curve of sand stretching more than 25km from Cape Rodney to Mangawhai Heads, it's not hard on a midweek afternoon to be alone on the beach. The surfers tell me the waves are the best in the lower north.
The men who gather here each year have more than surfing or fine views on their minds. The gathering - it was the 14th this year, though I've only made it to 12 - is a meeting of hearts and minds, a reality check and a chance to drop the role-playing that constitutes so much of modern life.
The four-day get together, called Get Off The Concrete (GOTC), grew from the work of an organisation that celebrated its 21st birthday last spring. It was, and still is, called Essentially Men (EM), although there's been a bit of discussion in recent weeks about whether that "essentially" is ambiguous or confusing for those who haven't met it before. The front-runner for the new brand is "Men Being Real", which has the advantage of directness.
It may seem presumptuous to imply that men beyond the EM circle are unreal, insincere or inauthentic. But if it does that, it does so out of a sense of solidarity, and not of disparagement.
It is hardly news that men have trouble talking about how they are feeling, while women, meeting for the first time, can often be involved in quite intimate exchanges with each other within minutes. By contrast, men typically have trouble being together in the absence of some mediating activity: playing a sport, fishing, building something (or knocking it down), drinking.
At the same time, there runs through so much of male communication an unspoken - and sometimes very explicitly spoken - sense of competition. We commonly ask each other what we do - by which we mean how we make a living. It's a subtle way of establishing a pecking order. In such circumstances, the idea that a man might admit to feeling vulnerable, depressed, lost or unable to cope is unthinkable.
Getting together each year is a chance to be rather than do, to pause and reflect without work pressures or domestic distractions, in an all-male environment where there is not a cubic metre of concrete to be laid. As EM founder Rex McCann put it "it helps men develop a language for their inner experiences and to take a good look at the hard issues in their lives in the company of other good men."
The benefits hardly need stating: men who learn such a new language are better equipped to avoid patterns that are both self-destructive and destructive of those around them and learn new ways of dealing with the challenges that life brings.
There were 60 of us this year, which was something of a relief for me, since I was in charge in the kitchen and I've known the numbers to top 100. And it's hard not to look gloomily at that drop in numbers. The financial pressure on families makes it harder for men to take time off to attend something like GOTC.
Making matters worse is that the pool of grant money that organisations such as EM draw on is evaporating. By some assessments it's down more than a third on last year. It's a dreadful irony that at a time of such economic pressure, the agencies that seek to fill the cracks that open up in our social fabric are having to patch themselves up, too.
On the web: essentiallymen.net
* Footnote: James Colville, who featured in last week's column, was on Monday appointed as the Wellsford representative on the Rodney Local Board.