A Well Toned 49

01330049Last Friday morning I completed a 10.75 mile run.  This was my third such run in a week and, as it turns out, I did another, shorter run in Stockton the following morning, clocking in a total of some 35 miles for the week. I decided late last year, that I wanted one of my goals for my 50th birthday to be to run a marathon on or around my birthday.  As luck would have it, the 2015 London Marathon is a few days after my 50th and I’m hoping to secure a space in it through the Alzheimer’s Society and do the run as part tribute to my mom who had the disease before she died and also as a celebration of making through 50 years in fairly good health.  I feel fantastic.

As I ran that morning in the dark and cool of the Berkeley hills, I found myself more focused than normal.  I was able to plug into a sense of my body and my gait and posture that in the end made the run feel fairly easy; even at the last big push through the 95 foot climb from Arch Street up to Euclid on Cedar (Berkeley folks will know it as one of the primary places where you would not like to do a hill start in a manual shift car.)  The most wonderful thing about getting into what is commonly known as “the zone” is that, beyond your body, you connect with thoughts and things that you had maybe let go of for a while.

I kept coming back to two things: my Great Uncle Ray and the Select Committee Hearing on Boys and Men of Color in Stockton I had participated in the previous day.  My Great Uncle Ray Lewis, was a Pullman Porter in Canada in the early and mid part of the last century.  He was also a 33rd degree Mason.  He was also Canada’s first black Olympic runner to win a medal (bronze 1932.)  I had the great fortune to know him late in his life when he was full of stories of running alongside the Canadian and Pacific Railroad cars to train and all of the many challenges that he was faced with as an athlete: people who tried to hurt him, unfair judging,etc.  I got to see his and his brothers and sister (my grandmother’s) room full of medals for athletics.  To me he was and will always be one of my greatest heroes.  But he was a man who was often faced with stark racism, keeping him out of jobs and other opportunities and he was forced to make tough choices about his life in order to keep some sense of sanity about him and food on the table.  As he entered his 93rd and final year of life, he too began to show signs of dementia and would frequently repeat some of his bawdier stories, much to the chagrin of my Great Aunt Vivienne, a woman who loved him passionately until the day he died and until the day she passed some 7 years later.

Me and Aunt Vivienne Lewis in 2006

Me and Aunt Vivienne Lewis in 2006

Ray’s life was one where he was taught to constantly be on his guard.  It was not an easy life.  It was not a life of “get what you deserve” it was more a life of get what you can take and tolerate.  I can only imagine what went on inside of him and his heart after standing on an Olympic podium and then having to work on the train that took him back to Canada.

My other fixation that morning as I ran was hearing young men talk about their lives growing up “in trouble” in Stockton at the select committee hearing.  These are young men who have, for any number of reasons, fallen afoul of the law only to be incarcerated, even as young as 11 years old.  They are taught from this age, that being in prison is an option.  The game is to try to find any way possible to beat these odds.  As I listened to these young men testify, I was struck not only by their words and stories, but by what must go on inside their hearts in terms of always being on guard; always being taught that there is some kind of trap waiting.  I am incredibly moved by the work that is going on with these beautiful young men of color through Fathers and Families of San Joaquin County where they are actively engaging the youth to find ways to move their hearts and goals toward a better place.  It is huge and inspiring.

My mind also drifted toward a very different kind of reminder of how even in my sanitized and safe world, there is a kind of backhanded otherization that can leave a man of color feeling vulnerable.  The other day, I was joining a Skype conversation with a group of colleagues and as often happens with Skype, the audio was connected before the video.  What I was greeted with was a very spirited and involved conversation…about my age.  It was not really derogatory, but it still felt highly invasive.  My age (49) and my physical looks, are something that I have often had to either justify or explain and the sum total is something that people who don’t know me, often boil down to the “black don’t crack” saying or some other assumption about my racial background.  However, anyone who really knows me also knows that I work hard to stay healthy.  It is not just because I have melanin in my skin or because I have “good genes.”  I work tirelessly with my diet and exercise regimen (case in point, I did an hour and a half run at 5:00 a.m. on a weekday) and I have a serious dedication to managing stress, the real killer in our culture.  Embodiment is part of my ministry and I live it as faith every day.  There are plenty of people in my family who aged plenty, so its not just DNA.  What’s more, my goal has never been to look young, but to simply stay vital.  To have my effort reduced to my racial background is a slap in the face that I neither expect nor deserve and gratefully was not the case here to my knowledge.  But still, to have my age and looks and body as a topic for general discussion without my presence felt a bit like a throwback to the slave auction block.  As a black man, I’m not alone in having had the assessment of my physical self held up like a prize pig at a state fair.  Whether it be porn or prison, black and brown men’s bodies disconnected from their beings and their souls and their presence, is a significant and disgusting part of the history of this country. Objectification is objectification no matter how you look at it.

As every mile and hill ticked by during my run, I thought about what these thoughts have in common and and where they intersect in me.  I realized that each of these situations involve men of color who have grown up with a baseline anxiety about our place in this culture.  We have never been so cock sure of ourselves that we would take for granted that there would always be another opportunity, or another threat.  Instead, we look at every opportunity, whether it is presented by a good choice (running in the Olympics) or a bad choice (trying to make money selling drugs) or a natural choice (living a health centered life)…we look at each of these opportunities as if it is our last.  I find myself often making decisions as if I will somehow be permanently written off or that I will never have the opportunity again.  How many times was I told as a child that I would be the “last hired and first fired” or that I needed to be better than everyone just to get in the door?  When we talk in black and brown circles about trauma and “hyper vigilance” so often the conversation falls back on physical violence, guns, abuse, etc.  But there are so many other examples of ways in which men of color have learned to be “on guard” in addition to these other very real physical threats.  Its not always as simple as absorbing the subconscious thought that you may be seen as a predator by strangers.  Sometimes it is more subtle; a change in posture in an elevator or other closed space, a comment about your sexual anatomy, an assumption about your knowledge of guns, church and rap music or casual statements about your age and appearance.

There is strong evidence that points to hyper vigilance as being something that can be passed down.  This would mean that I carry not only my own struggles, but my parents’ struggles through the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s and also their parents’ struggles through the Great Migration and Harlem Renaissance and their parents’ struggles through Restoration and their parents’ struggles through slavery and so on.  If this is the case, then my DNA should have me looking much, much older than I do now.  This kind of science helps explain some of the continued struggle.  But what is really needed is a way to change the equation entirely where young men of color are not in a position to pass on another layer of trauma through hyper vigilance.  Men of color must rewrite and reclaim cultural narratives that have been invalidated by the mainstream.  The way we manage time and life priorities have all been laid out for us according to the dominant culture…but do we really own it?

I mentioned that I did a shorter run in Stockton the day after my 10 miles.  This was a Heart and Spirit Run with Fathers and Families.  It was part run and part vigil.  A small group of us ran to a series of locations around Stockton to where people had been killed, mostly due to gun violence.  The first stop was just around the corner from our starting point and you could still see the bullet holes in the wall and on the ground.  This set the tone for another kind of deep reflection in motion.  On that run, every step I took, every stop we made, I found myself imagining what the moment of confrontation felt like.  I run in the dark cool of the early morning of Berkeley mostly because it feels so incredibly safe, as if I am wrapped in a dark velvet blanket where the only sound is my heart and my breathing.  What a contrast to imagine the night as a terror that might be ripped by the pop, pop, pop of gunfire aimed at me.  I looked at the young men and women I was running with, who live in Stockton, and I could see both the memories and the real live knowledge of having been hurt physically and or mentally by these crimes.  But I could also see a spark, something that kept them running on to the end of our journey, no matter if you need to stop and take a rest…keep going, make it to the end.  They believe deeply in their hearts that this nightmare can end and that they have a right to be able to run freely in the street and feel safe.  I believe it as well. 

At the end of my 10 mile run, as I clipped down the final hill and up to the rise to where I had started, I knew that I had made good time.  The sunlight indicated to me that it was no more than 6:40am which meant that I managed my distance in somewhere around 1.5 hours.  I felt tremendous as I stopped.  Not winded; heart beating only a little faster than normal.  In that space of still feeling “the zone” and feeling entirely at one with my body, I had a brief moment of total freedom; sheer joy and exhilaration.  I felt the blood of my Uncle Ray and the potential of my brothers and sisters in Stockton and the vitality that I have cultivated and protected for 49 years coursing through my veins.  I know that men of color can end the history of hereditary hyper vigilance.  We can set the goal of running the distance, find our stride and get in the zone.  We shall not be measured by trauma alone.

Conversations About Masculinity – Starving Men

“When I was a little boy, there was a point at which my dad stopped kissing me and holding me.  He was very clear that I couldn’t do that anymore…it was time for me to be a man.  I was 9.” – Story from an anonymous man

Hands of the poor

How many men can tell this story?  I was reminded of recently hearing this from a colleague when reading Mark Greene’s article in The Good Men Project “The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer. We are hurting our boys and men.  More than any blunt force, or assault, or simple neglect…we are actively and systematically damaging our boys, men and male identified people.  We surround them with images of “manliness” that celebrate force and control and demonizes compliance and emotion. Above all, we are hurting them in one of the most basic ways possible; and we are doing it without laying a hand on them. Literally.

When I read about trauma in men, I realize that I am reading about something that is sometimes as hard to pin down as gender itself.  It may look simple on the surface, but like gender, trauma may have fairly easy to see external signifiers, while at the same time it also has very complex, personal and individual internalizations.  In some of the work happening around healthcare and public policy, people are looking at trauma as a major factor in contributing to the outcomes, or rather the poor outcomes for boys and men of color.  The language is turning to “trauma informed care” (See: The National Center for Trauma Informed Care) and “school based health centers” specializing in addressing trauma in a way that will at once allow young victims to get what they need (care and education) in a context that factors in those cultural elements that have most held them back.  This isn’t just about people of color however.  In the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study done in 2012 on Tarpon Springs, FL, the predominantly white population in this small Gulf Coast community benefited to learn about the links to adult challenges (diabetes, heart disease) that can have their origins in childhood trauma (ACEs Too High Blog.)  Trauma is real for everyone who experiences it and it has deep impact on their lives regardless of both race and gender.

However, there is one kind of trauma that men in America experience we should be exploring much more deeply.  It has no official name at this point and it is not as simple as pointing to a direct victimization or something that is clearly outside of our traditionally based realm of moral constructs.  It is imbedded in the other traumas that get primary attention.  This trauma is a sustained, cultural damage that we endorse as a society and therefore will need much greater effort to combat.  Starvation by touch or what I would call culturally imposed skin hunger.  By forbidding touch, particularly touch between males, men in our culture experience life in a world devoid of unconditional human contact.  They are in essence ‘starving’ for physical contact and most of them don’t even realize it.  In an earlier blog post (Conversations About Masculinity – part 1), I described how American men are taught to experience touch as an exchange and how this “commodification of touch” doesn’t allow most men to experience touch outside of the experience of sex, gender stereotypes and power dynamics.  The most extreme result is sometimes a complete absence of touch experienced in the male life.  There are numerous studies that point to what happens when infants are denied touch…how they fail to thrive and develop (here is a great article from Pediatrics & Child Health.)  But this need does not actually change through life, hence the popularity of massage therapy and other ways in which adults experience human contact for a price.  When we  are regularly denied the most common and essential life sustaining elements of existence (food, water, light) we experience trauma.  Studying anatomy and physiology, one learns a great deal about how the body can’t actually distinguish between types of stress; how in fact, on an emotional level, the body experiences a punch in the face the same way it experiences the loss of a job (outside of the possible broken bones and blood vessels.)  If the body then cannot make the distinction between these kinds of broad differences, then why would it be able to distinguish between the more subtle trauma experienced surviving sexual assault and when it is denied loving human contact?

Where Does the Trauma Show

The US Department of Veterans Affairs has a very impressive section on their website that explores trauma and stress in relation to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) On this landing page they list any number of signs of PTSD and we are familiar with most of them in the context of those who have experienced war (sleep disturbances, anxiety, extreme behavior, etc.) But looking at the list of emotional disturbances, presents a very surprising parallel:

  • Feeling nervous, helpless, fearful, sad
  • Feeling shocked, numb, and not able to feel love or joy
  • Avoiding people, places, and things related to the event
  • Being irritable or having outbursts of anger
  • Becoming easily upset or agitated
  • Blaming yourself or having negative views of oneself or the world
  • Distrust of others, getting into conflicts, being over-controlling
  • Being withdrawn, feeling rejected, or abandoned
  • Loss of intimacy or feeling detached

When we see the way in which men in America react to physical intimacy that is not connected to sex (this even goes for same gender loving men), many of these same reactions are present.  How many times do we see an angry reaction from a man who feels another man has gotten too physically close? How often to we see men avoid physical contact?  How easy is it to see men as being cold or numb to affection.  The comparison between how men react to being culturally denied touch and other types of trauma is easy and disturbing.

Some of the most obvious evidence of  trauma resulting from the demonization of touch in America is in the way men do express themselves physically.  The extremes to which some men will go so that they are not in physical contact with another man can be comical if not sad; whether it be a crowded subway or a party game.  If an embrace or a handshake with another man lasts “too long” the defense systems are deployed and the contact is broken, often accompanied by a verbal posturing to assert one’s non touch defined maleness (“I’m no homo”, etc.)  But paralleling the actions that are sometimes seen in those who suffer abuse, the reaction can be significantly beyond the perceived affront.  One could draw this kind of parallel between many different types of trauma (the child of the alcoholic who becomes an alcoholic/ the boy who is chronically denied platonic touch and becomes a rapist, etc.) Of course this is not science (yet) but it may be an indicator of one way that we can look at how the lack of touch for men, manifests as a trauma reaction in every day life.

Another indicator is language.  Men are taught to avoid language that points toward affectionate contact with one another. Men do not use words such as: caress, stroke, hold, embrace either with each other or in reference to each other.  These are words (if they are used at all) that are reserved for intimate sexual settings only.  This points to the most damaging indicator of gendered skin hunger creating a trauma response in American men: sexuality.  It is easy to look at abuse and rape as ways in which men are disconnected from authentic sexual relationships, but it is more difficult when we start to actually explore what men are seeking in their sexual relationships whether they be gay or straight.  Even just the vast preoccupation of our culture with sex contrasted with the body shaming that we engage in speaks volumes about a complete disconnect with how men are experiencing their physicality.

Regardless of scientific evidence, there is no denying that the touch languages expressed by most men in America do not come from healthy places of self-esteem or security in one’s masculinity.  Some may claim that as ‘animals’ men are compelled to prove themselves and display their dominance over one another and those around them, hence the reluctance to interact physically without challenging the other male(s).  But then what of the other ability of male animals to groom one another and sleep with and enjoy each other’s bodies as expressions of comfort and safety and belonging?

How we can fix it

If we can look at the effects of culturally imposed skin hunger as a real trauma then we must look at real trauma solutions to help men recover from it.  Creating safe spaces for men to explore touch with one another; redefining verbal and physical language; establishing a new set of criteria for acceptable physical expressions that are not based in narrow, 19th century stereotypes or 21st century media-types.  Men are exploring options through support groups and online conversations.  But still, the cultural standard is the “strong man” image; the stoic, independent and unflappable warrior.

As a black man in America, I am also aware that men of color are among the most guilty of perpetuating culturally imposed skin hunger.  The problem for men of color however is that changing this environment is dependent upon dismantling a concept of success built upon restrictive, heteronormative social mores.  This goes deeper and involves exploring the whole dynamic of masculinity as a survival mechanism in post colonial cultural structures.  I am convinced that the changes that have to happen with all men will need to occur both in the world surrounding us and inside of our hearts.  Through some of the work around trauma in general, getting stories out in the public without shaming men, exposing the human vulnerability of men may allow for a different external dialogue.  But getting into the hearts of men will be a much greater challenge.  This will have to come from nurturing better environments within families and communities and by letting go of fear based cultural norms.  In a world where people are actually starving for dietary nourishment, why would we let others go hungry for human contact when the solution doesn’t require either an act of Congress or a budget.  The only real cost involved in feeding American men what they most need is an open heart.

Websites on Trauma

http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/pages/common-reactions-after-trauma.asp

http://www.nctsn.org/resources/audiences/parents-caregivers/what-is-cts/12-core-concepts

Articles on Touch (from Mark Greene at Good Men Project)

http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201302/the-power-touch

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2865952/

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201010/why-have-we-lost-the-need-physical-touch