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'Hey, man, can we talk?

The ways we socialize change with each generation. Today, friendships often get squeezed out by work and family obligations.

When Paul Friesen finally closes the church around 10 p.m. on the first Monday of every month, groups of men linger in the parking lot talking together.

Mr. Friesen, the director of men's ministry at Grace Chapel in suburban Lexington, Mass., sees such groups as signs of men breaking out of their cultural isolation. "They are talking about the real issues in their lives," he says, "and developing friendships."

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Friesen has enabled some 400 men to gather together for First Monday, a dinner-speech-discussion meeting with a spiritual impetus, which has taken place the past eight years. It's a community of men, an icebreaker to God.

"What these meetings have done for me," says Artie Clark, vice president of a mortgage company, "is help me to become more of a complete person, and a better friend to other men. What happens is that men here really want to talk about those inside, deep-down things they hide from the rest of the world."

The men's movement in the 1960s and '70s was supposed to have lifted the lid on traditional masculinity with its "don't cry, stay cool" hammerlock that limited male potential and friendship. But the result, according to some sociologists and therapists, was simply an uncovering of the complexity of "maleness" in today's society. The answers or redefinitions of men and friendships are still being shaped.

"There is no such thing as a men's movement anymore," says Ken Byers, author, therapist, and personal coach in San Francisco, who has counseled hundreds of men in executive positions.

"The steam just sort of went out of it," he says. "The problem I found with the most powerful part of the movement - Robert Bly's mytho-poetic approach - was that it failed to offer any idea of how men could solve the problems they were facing by looking at mythological solutions. The guy in the street wants to know how to get his wife back or why he doesn't have any friends."

Mr. Byers suggests that in the wake of the men's movement a large middle area now exists between the extremes of the masculine he-man model and the man of sensitivity and thoughtfulness. There are more ways for men to explore answers to their questions and find friendships in a less-constraining cultural environment.

Operating in this middle area are an increasing number of men's discussion groups, either at churches, men's centers and retreats, through community agencies, or informally in homes.

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"One of the starting points in our groups," says Larry Pesavento, founder and director of Christos Center for Men in Covington, Ky., "is to not see other men as competitors. We are all in the same boat, all in this together and not competing for a limited amount of resources. The old idea of manhood has led to a lot of emotional isolation in men, and more and more men are starting to realize that."

Before joining the First Monday gatherings, Mr. Clark usually spent 60 to 70 hours a week at his work, but he became increasingly dissatisfied with his life and felt a little isolated. He met men and had men friends, but few close relationships.

"With other men I am actually able to talk about my finances, my marriage, spirituality, even retirement now," he says of First Monday. "And it's definitely improved my marriage. I've also had the opportunity to introduce between 20 and 30 men to the meetings."

Among men and women there is something of a consensus that each sex maintains friendships differently, which plays a part in how they relate. "You get a group of women together who don't know each other," says Friesen, "and at the end of an hour some of them are best friends. You get a group of men together, and at the end of an hour they say, 'I'm never going to do that again.' "

Many of the men who find their way into the men's groups at the Christos Center for Men have few friends, are struggling in their marriages, or are dissatisfied with their work. Behind their unhappiness, says Mr. Pesavento, is usually the weight of emotional mis-education of men and boys in American culture.

"The cultural idea of manhood, which is flawed, is that a man is not supposed to fail at anything," he says. "Men feel ashamed if they fail, and are [therefore] not seen really as men in many ways."

Within their groups, men learn together that there are larger issues of self-worth, deeper values, more satisfying attitudes toward work and relationships, and spiritual meaning. Money has little to do with it. "They learn it's kind of a vertical and horizontal movement," says Pesavento. "Vertical toward one's own identity and calling, and horizontal in terms of one's relationship with others."

When men come to Byers, in addition to counseling them, he tells them to join a church group for men or form a men's group themselves for any friendship that is lacking in their lives. "It's powerful to start a men's group," he says. "Five, six, or seven men who meet every week or every other week, usually at a guy's house, and they talk about what is important to them. The guys get together because they want the friendship."

As for his own close friends, Byers has been willing to stay in touch. "My closest friend from college is still my close friend," he says. "I am fortunate in life for the good men who have been good friends. I will also acknowledge that I have worked hard to maintain these friendships [through] phone calls and lots of e-mails, which is something most men don't choose to do."

Brian Case, a Web site producer for a start-up company in San Francisco, has been reevaluating his life recently, including his male friendships. For a year and a half in his previous job, the hours he worked totaled an extra week every month. Now he tries for a 40- to 50-hour workweek.

"During that time I certainly didn't give myself a chance to make new friends," he says. "I find that most of my guy friends have been complacent. No one really organizes anything. An event like soccer can bring us together. But I was watching my ex-girlfriend hanging out with one of her friends. She invited her over to dinner, and I thought, have I ever just invited a friend over to dinner?"

Byers contends part of the problem with men slipping away from male friends, or not making new ones, is the cultural emphasis on the identification of men through their work.

"I deal with a lot of successful men," he says, "and they wake up at 45 years old and realize they don't have many friends in life. It's very common to hear men who don't have anybody that honors them enough just to listen to what they have to say. They simply use me as a sounding board."

Both Byers and Mr. Case conclude that the invasion of computers and the Internet into society should carry some blame for what they see as the illusion of providing communication among friends.

"I think the Internet forces all of us to the surface and never lets us go deeper," says Case. "The Internet makes it easier to blast off an e-mail to some obscure friend anywhere in the world. Right? And I can say, 'Hey, how are you doing?' But somehow the ease and method of that communication encourages thoughtlessness, it seems to me. Or there is this pseudo-communication level where somebody forwards you a funny joke via e-mail. You think you are communicating with someone, but you're really not."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society