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Understanding men

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The stereotypes ring in your ears:

Men never ask for directions.They are so intent on professional and financial success that any hint of failure ruins their confidence.

Men are hesitant to share their fears and inner thoughts with other men.

They're afraid of going bald, losing muscle mass or being downsized by a corporate merger.

Men associate sexual potency with their own physical vitality and their success in life.

Whichever of these tendencies men may exhibit, women usually have to cope with them. Who better than a woman to try to figure them out?

In her prescient and most recent book, "Understanding Men's Passages: Discovering the New Map of Men's Lives," (New York: Random House, 292 pages, $24.00), Gail Sheehy engagingly grapples with these questions.

It seems a logical step for a thoughtful author who in three previous books has analyzed various passages, including the path-breaking "The Silent Passage," about menopause.

Clearly, life's passages are her trademark, and she has managed to make the process of aging appear as a new, exciting challenge instead of a dreaded decline toward death.

In her newest book, Sheehy notes that the average life expectancy for men is now a more optimistic 73 and beyond, but most men do not plan for those years.

Although Sheehy aimed the book at men, she concedes that men "should read it and women WILL" - if only to learn about what Sheehy calls "manopause," which, she says, is a "more gradual and more variable" process than women experience.

Sheehy combines demographic research, group interviews, medical commentary and her own wisdom into a thoroughly engaging book that challenges men to face up to change.

In a telephone interview, Sheehy, who has also written books about political subjects, including "Gorbachev: The Man Who Changed the World," admitted that her own life has been characterized by a continuing thirst for change.

"I love to change personally, and change my subject, change my thinking . . . I'm always interested in how the psychological impacts culture . . . is it the great man who changes history or history that makes a great man or woman? Character is character. It's the imprint of one's moral behavior, and I'm fascinated by the relations between men and women."

Sheehy sees herself as a "cultural translator." She finds it exciting to try to bring clarity to difficult problems.

As to why a woman should tackle something as uncharted as "manopause," she says, "I just think that men guiding other men, there are always hidden complex fears about heterosexuality and homosexuality - who's a real man and who isn't? Although I was worried that writing about men's lives as a woman might be an impediment, it turned out, as I interviewed them . . . that they took it in terms of sort of a secret friend."

Sheehy believes her research has made her genuinely more sympathetic to men. "I really feel that I hear their secret voice, and I can read between the lines much better than I was able to before. I just came from the health club and a half dozen men stopped me to talk about Viagra.

I thought that was kind of terrific. I mean, you know, maybe before I was more sympathetic, men would have been pretty threatened by even mentioning an interest in a potency drug."

Sheehy thinks men see her as more approachable than she used to be. "I think it's sort of like when you're ready to be in love, people begin to flirt with you. Well, when you're ready to be sympathetic, people read it . . . it somehow leaks out."

Speaking of Viagra, Sheehy says potency is a major part of manliness to most men, and many fear they will lose potency as they age. Viagra, says Sheehy, is something "that men have been waiting for since Nebuchadnezzar, and I think it will be wonderful for men who are really suffering from organic, physical problems that impair their sexual function." On the other hand, she worries that it could mask disease. "Sexual potency problems may be a red flag for serious heart disease or diabetes."

Sheehy says the "second adulthood" usually hits a man in his mid-'40s. By then, he knows how the world works, understands his wife and children, and has a greater likelihood of "thoughtfully connecting with other people."

She is impressed with such older men as Senator John Glenn, who is determined to make another contribution to space in his '70s. TV's Mike Wallace, who overcame depression in his 70s and globe trots in his 80s; and Philip Johnson, the architect, who is about to build his dream church at the age of 92.

"So the men who do get it and redirect their lives before the hammer falls or who have the resilience to get through normal changes of aging . . . can still have enormously productive lives."

In their early years, men are often motivated by making money, going up the corporate ladder, or impressing women.

When the mid-life crisis comes, "their values change and the real question becomes, how to be a better father, or how to be more creative, or how to be more collaborative, or what about the spiritual dimension?"

Change for men comes in many different ways. It could be a change of careers - once, even twice - "or it may be rediscovering his love of flying or it may be after a divorce instead of moving to California and dying his hair and getting a condo and trying to be 25 forever, he might devote himself to being a single dad."

Those men who fail to connect, who act irresponsibly, and who continue to chase women beyond middle age, says Sheehy, are afraid of both death and change.

Sheehy is convinced that all men need to become educated about their own passages, because, ironically, they "are much more uncertain and threatened about aging than women."