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Guys : In groups to help them cope, males sing, dance around fires, read poetry, tell their life stories--to the beat of primal drumming.


Welcome to Ventura County--the place where men are men, boys are boys and women, well, let's not talk about them right now.

It's a place where guys can be as tough as the saddles they ride in, and male bonding is a slap on the back and a shared pitcher of Bud.

It's home to rugged-looking guys like Jamie Seerden, an electrical equipment salesman who is accustomed to a certain degree of grittiness in his everyday male banter.

"I work in an arena that is typically redneck, so when the men get together, they do what's normal for them. They spit and cuss and talk about women and sports," said Seerden, of Thousand Oaks.

"But men also need a safe place where they don't have to wear the mask that male-dom has a tendency to make you wear," he said quietly. "A man needs a place where he can spill his guts about his life and fears, where he can get away from ideas like 'big boys don't cry' and where he can get in touch with his pain."

Just a minute, good buddy.

Spill his guts about his fears? Learn how to cry? What is this, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"?

Apparently not. Last year, Seerden formed a men's support group. And it was just one of many that are springing up faster than gray hairs at an over-40 club.

There are now therapist-led support groups from Simi Valley to Ojai, church-sponsored support groups, hospital-based groups and men's meetings formed from members of organizations such as Codependents Anonymous.

Masculinity Myths

In living rooms, sweat lodges, among the redwoods or against the backdrop of granite peaks, men can be found singing, dancing around fires, reading poetry or telling their life stories--the night quiet punctuated with primal drumming.

"Being a macho man is a very isolating, painful experience," said Corbett Phibbs, a therapist who leads a men's support group at Parenting Plus in Newbury Park.

"One of the major reasons these groups are forming is because, in a sense, it is now socially acceptable--and you're no longer considered a wimp or a failure--if you feel your feelings. It's OK now for men to acknowledge their loneliness and anger."

That anger, they say, is not to be confused with woman bashing. "I think that the men feel bashed," Seerden said. "They don't know how to react to the new woman. All the values you grow up with are frightening for men now. You don't know what kind of stance you are supposed to take."

Much of the impetus for the groups, nationally as well as countywide, appears to have come from recently published books by authors Robert Bly and Sam Keen. Both have written extensively on what they perceive to be societal myths about masculinity.

In his No. 1-best-selling book "Iron John: A Book About Men," Bly says that for too long men have gotten their emotional nurturing from women. He encourages them to go beyond male stereotypes and get in touch with their "wild man" and their "inner warrior," a process he says will occur when men can find their own vulnerability through relationships with other men.

The "wild man" and "warrior" symbols do not imply hostility or aggression, Bly says, but instead joy, exuberance for life and the ability to defend what a man loves.

In "Fire in the Belly," author Keen expresses similar views. "Only men understand the secret fears that go with the territory of masculinity," he writes.

The books are also big sellers around the county. "You won't believe this," said Ed Elrod, owner of the Ventura Bookstore on Main Street as he proceeded to reel off sales figures for the books by Bly and Keen.

The store had sold 65 copies of Bly's book by mid-July, he said, versus seven copies of the New York Times Book Review's No. 2 bestseller. There has also been strong interest in Keen's ruminations on manhood. Other bookstores, including Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, both in Ventura, reported similarly brisk sales of the books.

What's the chord they strike in men?

"Men have been looking for a language to express themselves, and this idea of the 'wild man' and 'warrior' has really hit them," said Stephen Frueh, a therapist who leads a men's group at the Families Counseling Center in Simi Valley.

"Men have a language for cars and sports and careers and building bridges, but they also want one for themselves, for who they are. Now they're asking, 'Where is my wild man? Where is my warrior?' "

And the question, Frueh added, is asked by men from all economic and educational backgrounds.

"One stereotype is that the working class are too macho for this. But there are men who are bricklayers and in the trades, as well as attorneys and doctors," he said. "If anything, they (blue-collar workers) are more available to talk about their pain and their anger than the educated man, who has been taught that posture and control are everything."

Passing the Fish

It is a Wednesday evening at Parenting Plus in Newbury Park, and therapist Phibbs is apologizing for the noise.

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