Just Your Garden Variety White Guy

That my family has a certain amount of Native American ancestry has long been a legend. It goes back at least as far as my great-grandparents, who told it to my grandparents. And perhaps further back for all I know.

But it turns out that I’m your garden variety white guy.

Where do family legends like this come from? Really, it’s not that boring being white.  I am from Maine, after all. I can entertain people by talking in a funny accent (even if my real accent is neutral white American).

In my defense, I’ve always checked white on forms. I fit the stereotype. I like old country music like Johnny Cash (though not new country) and classic rock, I’m boring, I dance like I have a pole stuck up my ass, and I hope to visit Ireland some day.

Recently, my sister and I did an experiment. We had our DNA tested with different companies. The results were consistent: 100% European ancestry. We are more than half Anglo-Irish, though the amount of French is less than we thought it would be (despite having a French last name).

Something unexpected did turn up, however. There’s a notable percentage of Iberian ancestry (Spain). And my Y chromosome is predominantly found among people of Middle Eastern descent. Among people of European descent this Y chromosome is found mainly (but not exclusively) among Jews.

This doesn’t mean I’m Jewish, though it’s possible. Spain expelled its Jews around the time Columbus sailed for America, so the Iberian combined with not as much French as I expected could indicate that a male ancestor left Israel during the diaspora back in Greco-Roman times, then ended up in France after being kicked out of Spain.

I’ll never know. The genealogical records only go back to my ancestors’ arrival in the New World.

Doesn’t matter. I still can’t dance.


Lone Wolf & the Myth of the Alpha Male

The Grey starring Liam Neeson was a good action flick, but its portrayal of the wolf as a lone psychopathic killer was way off base. Dogs, after all, are simply domesticated wolves. Disney’s 1983 film Never Cry Wolf was far more accurate in its portrayal of wolves as social animals, though I more enjoyed the non-fiction book by Farley Mowat which inspired the movie.

Carl Safina, in a New York Times op-ed, reminds us that wolves are pack animals, not loners. But the lone wolf is symbolic of the alpha male. Safina writes that, “Alpha male connotes the man who at every moment demonstrates that he’s in total control in the home, and who away from home can become snarling and aggressive.”

A wolf pack is actually quite different. While the alpha male wolf will be aggressive with outsiders in defense of his family, but within the pack he is most often cooperative. Safina quotes wolf researcher Rick McIntyre, who compares the alpha wolf to a human man who is emotionally mature and who leads with a quiet self-confidence.

Another myth is that wolf packs are male dominated. Safina writes,

Biologists used to consider the alpha male the undisputed boss. But now they recognize two hierarchies at work in wolf packs — one for the males, the other for the females.
Doug Smith, the biologist who is the project leader for the Yellowstone Gray Wolf Restoration Project, said the females “do most of the decision making” for the pack, including where to travel, when to rest and when to hunt. The matriarch’s personality can set the tone for the whole pack, Dr. Smith said.
Or, as Mr. McIntyre put it: “It’s the alpha female who really runs the show.”

There are various permutations of patriarchy theory, but most boil down to the notion that all men are privileged by male domination of society, and all women are oppressed. Western culture today accepts this as self-evident, and only a right-wing reactionary would disagree.

Indeed, no one can credibly deny that the public realm – government, business, and religion – is a patriarchy.

But there are certain things patriarchy theory has difficulty explaining (and therefore often denies). For one, it isn’t just the top of society that’s male dominated. The bottom of society is also predominantly male. The majority of chronically homeless are men, most school dropouts are male, 4 out of 5 suicides are male, almost all war casualties are men, and 9 out of 10 workplace deaths are male.

The retort that these men are to blame for their own fates because it’s men who start wars misses the point that no innocent person should be blamed for the actions of another, even if they do share certain physical or demographic characteristics.

Besides, other men are competition for the men in authority, so it’s in the authority’s interest to keep those men down. Put another way, being used as a beast of burden or as cannon fodder by other men is not a privilege.

And sex isn’t the largest factor with privilege. For example, in the Middle Ages a princess had more privilege than a male peasant, though the prince had more privilege than the princess.

Further, women have more power at home, as both Iowa State University and Pew Research Center find. A study by Dr. Elizabeth A. Bates of the University of Cumbria also finds that at home women are often more controlling than men.

While men have often resisted greater equality for women in the workplace and in the public realm, corresponding to that is women’s resistance to men being stay-at-home husbands. Yet men desire a greater role in family life. Greater gender equality is not just about men’s attitudes toward women, it’s also about women’s and men’s attitudes toward each other.

Recognizing that the lone wolf is a myth means a shift away from Hollywood’s unrealistic loner, action film tough guy to the man who leads with quiet self-confidence rather than force; and who is central and personal rather than peripheral and impersonal in his social unit, be it his family, his workplace, or his neighborhood.

In other words, more Captain Picard and less Captain Kirk.



Men & Suicide

In the United States 77% of people who commit suicide are men. In every country (except China) men are more likely to die by their own hands.


June is men’s health month, and mental health is as important as physical health. So let’s take a look at men, depression, and suicide.

Some answers are facile. Men are more likely to use extreme methods, such as a gun, while women are more likely to swallow pills. But using a more fatal method simply shows a greater desire to die. It doesn’t explain why men are more likely to feel that way.

On the other hand, women report more suicidal thoughts than men do. But is it possible that men have as many (or more) suicidal thoughts but don’t report it?

Men aren’t supposed to need help. Recently I had to put air in my tires, but I couldn’t get the cap off one tire stem. I asked a fellow traveler if she had pliers. She grabbed a pair from her trunk and removed the cap. I thanked her, but her irritation with me was evident.

No big deal. But what if I needed help with something far bigger – with my emotional life disintegrating to the point where I felt suicidal?

There’s a reason men don’t ask for help.

Solid data on suicide attempts are hard to come by, but anecdotally women are more likely to attempt suicide. However, those attempting suicide often don’t want to die and instead are communicating their need for help. A cry for help means the person believes someone may actually help them.

But no one attempts suicide with a gun – they really want to die. Are men less likely to believe anyone will help them, leaving a final exit as the only perceived option?

Depression plays a large role in suicide, and here too we find a gender difference. Women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with depression. But if women suffer from depression more than men, why do men commit suicide at such higher rates?

Perhaps mental health professionals don’t recognize depression in men because there are differences in the way men and women experience depression. This is not a new idea: the evidence that men suffer from depression at similar rates as women goes back more than a quarter century

Psychiatry’s manual of mental disorders, the DSM-5, lists symptoms of depression such as fatigue, loss of interest in fun stuff, feelings of guilt, sleeping too much or too little, and of course suicidal thoughts. But depressed men are more likely than depressed women to be more aggressive, to engage in risky behaviors, and abuse substances.

One problem is that there’s a shortage of men in the mental health field, and a consequence is treatment more geared toward women than men. Alternative approaches such as ManTherapy, which uses humor to engage men, have yet to catch on.

Though teen suicide is a big concern, middle age suicide is often overlooked. Alice G. Walton writes in Forbes that “there’s still a lot of pressure on men to fill out the masculine husband role, whatever socioeconomic class one is in, and the reality is that today this classic role may be somewhat unrealistic.” Somewhat?

Poor and divorced men are especially vulnerable for suicide because they have experienced a loss of the primary male role, which is to serve as a resource for women and children (specifically, to provide and protect). Divorced women don’t face a similar loss of the traditional female role (caring for children) because mothers are far more likely than fathers to get custody of the children. But most of all, women have greater social networks and social supports than men.

Let’s recap: Men experience depression as often as women but are less likely to be diagnosed. Women attempt suicide more because they believe their cry for help will be heeded. Men are much less likely to believe anyone will help, and men are more likely to be shamed for asking for help. Men are more socially isolated than women. And job losses and divorce have a far more negative impact on men because traditional gender role expectations are more rigid for men.

It’s not just about what men need to do differently. That men must take action is a 1950s ethos which no longer serves men’s interest. Were it more socially acceptable for men to ask for help, men would do so. But this isn’t just about men’s view of the male gender role: women must also change their perceptions (see Heather Gray’s Are We Really Ready For Emotionally Intelligent Men?).

Further, we must raise awareness that suicide is a gendered issue. This requires rowing against the zero sum current which says that any focus on men’s issues comes at the detriment of women’s issues. Mental health professionals, and especially substance abuse counselors, must be educated on how to spot depression and suicide risk in men. Finally, mental health treatment should consider unorthodox approaches such as the humor of ManTherapy to reach men who might otherwise avoid therapy.

June Is Men’s Health Month

Why don’t men live as long as women? The lifespan gap between American women and men stands at 5 years (with notable differences based on race, though women of any race, on average, outlive all men).

The lifespan gap was only 1 year in 1920, peaking at almost 8 years in the late 1970s. I created this graph based on numbers from UC Berkeley‘s and Infoplease.com‘s compilation of CDC data:

lifespan graph

The recent increase in men’s life expectancy is largely due to today’s men smoking much less than their fathers did. Men born after World War II are also more likely to eat right and exercise.

But will men ever catch up to women? Probably not, but the lifespan gap can be smaller than it is.

Males are at great risk right from the get go. Slightly more births are male. But overall 49% of the population is male due to the greater number of elderly women. Because a roughly 50/50 male/female balance is optimal for survival, evolution appears to have selected for a slightly higher number of male births to create an equal male/female ratio by puberty.

Added to that are cultural factors. Men are greater risk takers, which results in greater successes and greater failures. The Department of Labor finds that 92% of workplace deaths are male because men do the most dangerous jobs such as oil rig, police, and fire work. And war most severely affects men, whether they choose to be in that situation or not. 97.5% of American fatalities in the Iraq War were male.

Men also prioritize women’s health over their own. Though elected and appointed government officials are overwhelmingly men, there is no US governmental offcie of men’s health, though the Office of Women’s Health has existed since 1991. Though prostate cancer kills two-thirds as many men as breast cancer kills women, breast cancer receives almost 3 times as much government funding.

In the past medical research was conducted almost exclusively on men and generalized to women, in part because the research of yesteryear was more dangerous (and medical ethics less developed), and men wanted to spare women from that danger. But it resulted in notable failures to understand women’s health. Medical science has worked to rectify this in recent decades.

But men’s health, in the sense of health issues unique to men, has not been studied to the same extent as women’s health has.

Men have shown a willingness to focus more on health in their personal lives, but we have not done so in our public or political lives. This is the next frontier in men’s health.

The United States Is Growing – And Shrinking

At the dawn of the 21st century the United States had about 300 million people, and could add 50 million by 2030. Still, some parts of the US will lose population as more people move to the city.

The Urban Institute’s map of regional population shifts illustrates this. Although Maine won’t see any population growth overall, the population of southern Maine is growing. Northern Maine’s population, however, is shrinking. It’s all about where the jobs are (and are not).

Take a look at the Urban Institute’s map. The rust belt from Upstate New York to Ohio, and down the Appalachians into Kentucky stand out as an area in decline. The Dakotas down to central Texas and New Mexico also stand out.

Texas is poised for a population boom, but it will be concentrated in the Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio triangle (Austin is in the middle). The coastal South and the West Coast, as well as most major urban areas in the Heartland, are also expected to grow significantly.

It’s not just the United States. The greater Tokyo area has almost 36 million people, but the countryside is emptying out. Some rural Japanese schools are running out of students.

In the mid-20th century, researcher John B. Calhoun made several attempts to create a mouse utopia. He constructed an enclosed area capable of housing 5,000 mice. There was plenty of food, no predators, and the original 8 mice (half male, half female) were disease free. Calhoun thought the mouse population would rise rapidly, then level off, and the mice would have a groovin’ good time with nothing to worry about.

But it went horribly wrong. Every.single.time. (He did this several dozen times.) The problem is that the mice would gather in clusters, while other areas were abandoned. Eventually the overcrowding and competition for resources led to violence among the males. The females stopped bearing young, and some killed their pups.

And then there were the “beautiful ones.” These non-aggressive males withdrew to the abandoned areas to live as hermits. They spent much of their time grooming, hence the nickname.

At first Calhoun wondered if the population decline would level off, enabling mouse society to stabalize as violence decreased. But no. Extinction was the fate of every mouse “utopia.”

What does this mean for humans? Generalizing from one species to another is tricky at best, especially considering that humans are much more intelligent (though Douglas Adams might disagree).

This doesn’t mean the apocalypse.

Still, there are striking parallels. There’s plenty of food on this planet to feed everyone, we no longer have natural predators, and while disease hasn’t been entirely conquered we’ve made enormous strides in medical science.

In addition to crowding into cities and the decline of the countryside, there’s the plummeting birthrates in Europe and Japan to below replacement level, which is expected to result in a population decrease.

But there’s more. In Japan there’s a group of young men called the “grass eaters” or “herbivore men” (草食男子, soshokukei danshi) who live as urban hermits, do not seek sex with women (or men), and who are rumored to spend more than the average man on grooming products. It’s hard to say how numerous they are, but there are enough of them to catch the West’s attention. Will the “beautiful ones” phenomenon come to Europe or America?

On the other hand, there’s contrary evidence. Crime, already low in Japan, has been decreasing. But if Calhoun’s mouse experiment applied equally to humans then crime in Japan should be increasing.

And that’s cause for hope. If humans follow some of the patterns from Calhoun’s experiment but not others then there’s an opportunity for humans to continue thriving.

Random: What’s In a Word?

Millennials catch a lot of flack for using the word random incorrectly.  For example, “Like, this totally random dude came up to me and, like, said ‘Whatever!'”

Dictionary.com defines random as “unpredictable,” “lacking uniformity,” or “occurring without definite aim”  Or more technically, “a process of selection in which each item of a set has an equal probability of being chosen.”

Millennials often use random to mean unexpected, which is similar to unpredictable. I once had someone say to me, “Hey, I have a random question,” and then he proceeded to ask about something specific that had been on his mind. Maybe he assumed I wouldn’t expect the question, but he certainly had given it some forethought and had a definite aim.

Young people also talk about random hook-ups, though I assume they’re choosing the person they want to sleep with rather than pulling names from a hat. On the other hand, they might not have gone to the party with a preset plan of sleeping with that specific person, which is why the event seemed random to them.

Other times random means miscellaneous. Paul Hiebert lists a few of his pet peeves, including a New York Magazine article “Six Random Michael Jackson Pop-Culture Moments.” Hiebert lists several other meanings of random, including inconsequential, unlikely, strange, silly, and capricious.

But in defense of Millennials, I should point out that word meanings often change.  Mad actually means crazy, but Americans use it to mean angry. The British could take us to task for that, but mad as angry is so entrenched in American English, and consequently international pop culture, that it’s not a battle worth fighting.

Imagine this exchange:

“That guy is random.”

“Yeah, he came out of nowhere.”

“No, I mean he’s running.”


Random entered the English language twice. The Old English word rinnan meant to flow or to run, and was derived from the Old High German rennen, meaning to run.

Though the Frankish invaders of Gaul mostly dropped their old German dialect in favor of the local Latin-based dialect that would become French, some old Frankish words nonetheless survived. The Frankish word rant meant running, and the Norman French conquest of England in 1066 brought a derivative with it – randon, meaning “rush, disorder, force, impetuosity.”

Random evolved from running fast; to rushing in a disordered or impetuous way; to no specific aim; to today’s selection process in which all outcomes have equal probability, which overlaps with popular uses connoting capricious, unexpected, and inconsequential.

In a way, then, the following dialogue is not so incoherent:

“Dude, like, the etymology of random is, like, random.”

“Word, bro.”