By Robert L. Kaiser
Chicago Tribune Staff Writer
November 14, 1999
This afternoon he was Executive Vice President for Human Resources.
Tonight he is Great Horned Owl.
The transformation of Mark Shircel, which occurs without even loosening his yellow necktie, takes place just after nightfall on a shadowy loading dock beneath the Kennedy Expressway.
Here, between an old tire and a weathered hand truck inside a men's-clothing warehouse, Shircel and two-dozen other men gather arm-locked in a circle--all wearing stickers scrawled with the names of animals.
The unlikely group, whose members range in age from 18 to 58 and sport everything from Nikes to wingtips, includes a pastor, a factory worker, a commercial airline pilot, a medical technician, a private detective, and an executive--the 42-year-old Shircel--whose joyless workday ended with laid-off employees parading through his office to be processed out of the firm.
These are the most recent Chicago-area initiates of the New Warrior Training Adventure, a 48-hour weekend retreat for the modern American man seeking to make himself "tough and loving, wild and gentle, fierce and tolerant."
"How are you different now?" group leader George Rounds asks, exhorting the men in a hushed and solemn voice.
Soaring Eagle and Majestic Giraffe and Big Sky Moose listen raptly.
In the next room, 125 people have assembled for a ceremony in honor of the men. It's a strange and mysterious rite of passage for 25 ordinary Joes carrying on the extraordinary rituals of a men's movement that seems to be gaining newfound credibility.
The movement emerged more than a decade ago with the mythopoetic musings of Robert Bly and, perhaps somewhat presumptuously, borrowed icons and rituals for its white-male middle-class displays of angst from African and Native American cultures.
Now, with the recent publication of feminist Susan Faludi's book "Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Male," and the release of this season's hit movie "Fight Club," the story of modern man's struggle for purpose in a fickle world of shifting gender roles is hot again.
"In today's society, men just don't communicate," Shircel said. "I mean we don't speak from our hearts. It's like, `How's the football game, the cars, the fishing,' that kind of crap. And it just didn't feel right to me."
The New Warriors' retreat changed all that, he said.
"On the way home, I had this unbelievable feeling that I had actually talked to a man."
Undoubtedly most Americans ceased to contemplate men's groups after their highly publicized heyday in the early 1990s, when the movement peaked amid the beating of drums and the smirking of detractors. But the show has gone on, albeit largely out of the public consciousness.
The rituals continue today, not only in the woods and hills of Middle America, but in the Evanston office building where therapists Bob Mark and Buddy Portugal, co-founders of the locally based program called Men's Room: Victories of the Heart, do their work; and in rented space in Chicago's highly visible Mural Building on North Ashland Avenue--the Bigsby & Kruthers warehouse in which graduates of the New Warriors program meet in weekly sessions that build on the weekend retreats of the New Warriors.
New Warriors--the only international program of its kind and one of the oldest and largest in the country--is operated out of 27 centers worldwide by The Mankind Project, a not-for-profit group whose primary mission is to sponsor the retreats. Its Chicago center, the program's second-oldest and its largest, has graduated 3,000 initiates since opening in 1985.
For New Warriors and other such groups that have survived since America's initial fascination with them waned, little has changed--even as an unlikely champion has taken up the cause and pop culture has indoctrinated a new generation.
"I think we're a voice in the wilderness," said Dave Lindgren, program director for Mentor's Action Network, the not-for-profit Chicago organization that sponsors the follow-up sessions for New Warriors.
Popular culture and the mass media have not always been kind to the men's movement.
"We have not set out to put ourselves at the top of the public-relations heap," said Chuck Heisinger, executive director of the Mankind Project, "because we know this is a sensitive issue."
But he added: "Our organization is at a crossroads. Are we going to be just a white, middle-class men's organization, or are we going to be all-inclusive?"
New Warriors groups comprise mostly middle-class white men with a few African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities. The retreat costs $600, but in the interest of diversity organizers sometimes reduce or waive the fee.
"In many instances, these were highly educated men who at midlife could say, `OK, I'm tired of being a manager and tired of choking my feelings back to do this job,' " said Michael Schwalbe, a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University and author of a book on the men's movement, "Unlocking the Iron Cage."
"It takes a lot of privilege to be able to do that."
The Mankind Project co-founder is Rich Tosi, an ex-Marine and former engineer with General Motors who dreamed up the whole idea years ago while sitting at a kitchen table in Wisconsin with two other men. He initially thought the notion of men's groups was crazy.
But groups such as New Warriors do invaluable work, Tosi said.
"When groups of men are together, the energy and what is done and what is talked about is very different than if men and women are together," he said.
New Warriors is the only nationwide men's group that crosses boundaries of race, class and religion, said Robert Moore, a psychoanalyst at the University of Chicago. Many of the other large men's groups, such as Promise Keepers, are Christian.
In 2000, Heisinger expects New Warriors to place renewed emphasis on community service. Although some initiates have gone on to start or become involved in volunteer outreach programs designed to help everyone from schoolchildren to prison inmates, many others have not taken the initiative.
"I don't think we've always given them the tools," Heisinger said.
Though the overall men's movement has waned since its heyday, Men's Room co-founder Portugal said his program's retreats--which also draw on certain Native-American rituals--still attract about 25 new participants each time.
"If you have a lot of middle-age men going through their lives feeling demoralized, dispirited, mildly depressed and sort of aimless, these programs are a tonic," Schwalbe said.
At Mentor's Action Network, in the Bigsby & Kruthers warehouse, New Warriors initiates can order drums painted with an image of the animal for which they have been named--Visa or MasterCard accepted. A drum 18 inches in diameter costs $250, including standard drumsticks.
Mentor's Action Network is not part of The Mankind Project, but the two groups often work hand-in-hand. The offices of Mentor's Action Network are where initiates graduate after weekend initiations and then gather on weeknights to meet in follow-up sessions with others from their retreat group.
Juan Alegria, arriving for his group session one recent Tuesday night, greeted another initiate with a bear hug.
"My friend, Wolf with Open Eyes," said the 39-year-old Alegria--a.k.a. Loving Hawk--as he embraced Dale Nowicki, 45.
"Absolutely," he said.
Alegria, a native of Nicaragua who works for a social-service agency specializing in youth guidance, went through an initiation weekend in January 1995. He served as a staff member on Nowicki's retreat, where the two met.
Nowicki, of Riverside--a credit manager who went through initiation in January 1998--got his nickname, Wolf with Open Eyes, this way:
"I was born cross-eyed. I was in my early 30s before I would even look anybody in the eyes," he said.
Now, his gaze flinty and unwavering, he points out: "I always look everybody in the eye when I talk."
Once all the men arrived, they walked outside in the shadows under the highway and beat drums and waved smoking sage sticks at each other as motorists roared past overhead. There was Winking Hyena. And Screaming Lion. And Fearless Tiger.
The men straggled back inside and shut themselves in sparsely furnished rooms with names like Coyote Den and Bear Cave to talk and shout, chant and bellow, grunt and laugh--until it was time to go home to their wives and families. Or, in the case of 41-year-old Paul Conover, a sales consultant from Chicago who found out about New Warriors from a corporate head hunter, to a bar with a fellow New Warrior to watch the World Series over a beer.
"I like the safety," Conover said. "There's a place to go where I can express my feelings and thoughts --a safe container."
"Safe container" is a catch phrase for these men, who sometimes seem to speak a language all their own. Theirs is an exclusive club. Initiates are sworn to secrecy, are loath to allow interlopers into their midst.
Each has signed an agreement. They are forbidden from talking about what happened to them that weekend in the woods.
"It's nothing that's bad or evil. It's not a cult," Nowicki said. But he hasn't even told his wife about the retreat. "So for us, it's kind of put a little bit of a wedge between us."
"A lot of these guys may feel like they're sort of ordinary characters in their everyday lives," Schwalbe said. "Now they're part of something so powerful and important that it's not to be shared indiscriminately with others."
New Warriors is promoted and marketed almost exclusively by word of mouth.
"It's not something that can be marketed very well, with men showing up not understanding what's going on," Tosi said. "You have to have a friend say, `Just do it, trust me.' "
Shircel, who lives in suburban Barrington, decided over a half-eaten plate of pancakes one morning to go on one of the retreats. It was at breakfast that his friend Joel Mazzenga finally talked Shircel into it.
The weekend, which begins with each man being stripped of his name and given a number, is one of submitting to the unknown, of support and confrontation, of enduring rituals such as the ancient, Native-American sweat lodge: a small enclosure with hot, steam-producing rocks in the middle. Worldwide, 15,000 men have been through this.
On a recent cold autumn night at Mentor's Action Network the men who went on the latest retreat waited on the loading dock to step through a narrow doorway and be cheered like the home team.
"You're the wild men," group leader Rounds tells them.
In the next room, where the graduation ceremony would take place, someone was beating a drum. The wives and girlfriends were there that night. One wore a name tag scrawled with the words "Mrs. Golden Bear."
Another, Barb Soltysiak, smiled as she waited for her husband, 56-year-old Larry, a private detective known as Gray Wolf.
On the loading dock, Shircel stood quietly, the hint of a smile on his face. A thoughtful man with a master's degree in counseling, Shircel had been apprehensive as he drove up to Lake Geneva for the retreat.
When it was all over, he sat in his car for five minutes before starting the 45-minute drive home, his breath fuming white in front of his face, his hands shaking.
"I just couldn't believe what I'd just experienced," he said.
Now, four days after being rendered speechless, he must find the words to tell all those people out there what the weekend meant for him.
"It's time," someone said.
The men stepped through the narrow doorway and the crowd went wild.
"Ho!" Majestic Giraffe, a 41-year-old pilot for United Airlines, said to those in attendance.
He pounded the floor with the talking stick, a Native-American tool that would be passed to each man before he spoke.
"Ho!" the crowd bellowed.
"I'm Ed Fernandez," Majestic Giraffe said. "I was financially secure, but my life didn't work for me. I rode the train and walked around the city but I was lonely inside.
"Now I look forward to the rest of my life."
The crowd exploded happily:
Soon Shircel took the floor.
"My name is Mark Shircel--Owl," he said.
Mary, Shircel's wife of 14 years, smiled. Their son, 4-year-old Carl, abandoned a toy airplane and waved at his father from the crowd.
"I'm up here a lot, not down here," Shircel said, first pointing to his head, then to his heart.
"This weekend allowed me to reach down into my heart."