Author Gerzon sees fresh images of heroism improving families, jobs

Ring the doorbell at a roomy bungalow on a quiet street here, and Mark Gerzon will probably come bolting down from his word processor in an upstairs study, dodging children's toys along the way.

The lanky, chestnut-haired author spends a lot of time there preparing talks, articles, and material for a future book. Having his office at home enables him to share with his working wife, Shelley Kessel, in the care of their three sons, aged 9, 5, and 10 months. It also places him squarely in the midst of the evolving concept of masculinity that is the subject of his third and newest book.

A Choice of Heroes: The Changing Faces of American Manhood (Houghton Mifflin, especially the models that shape masculine images from boyhood through adulthood.

Gerzon looks at five traditional male images - the frontiersman, the soldier, the breadwinner, the expert, and the Lord (a patriarchal concept of God) - and finds them outmoded. He blames our inability to come to terms with that fact for part of the frustration, callousness, alienation, and aggression seen in many marriages and careers.

He predicts that emerging masculine models - the healer, the mediator, the companion, the colleague, and the nurturer - will prove helpful for the '80s and beyond in eliminating some of these problems.

Settling down on a couch in a glassed-in sun porch, Gerzon tells me that the seed for the book was planted in 1967 when, as a college student, he marched on the Pentagon with 50,000 other anti-Vietnam-war demonstrators, while onlookers shouted insults.

Was it cowardice, as the shouters claimed, or something more positive and heroic that motivated the protest? he wondered. Were the soldiers who followed orders in Vietnam more ''manly'' than these marchers?

Although Gerzon began a book on masculinity 10 years ago, he found it impossible then to carry through the self-probing and cultural analysis required. It demanded more distance.

''Most people who talk about women's roles and men's roles now talk about 'Tootsie,' '' he says. '' 'Men are becoming more like women' is the only way they have of putting it. Of course, that scares the living daylights out of men. It makes them yearn for the good old days when there were lots of heroes. In the book I'm trying to say: no, it's not that heroism has disappeared; it's not that masculinity is in decline. It's that we're being asked to change.''

The old images of frontiersman and soldier, he writes, ''led men to protect their loved ones, to defend cherished values, and to enrich and expand their lives.'' But the intrepid pioneer-hero of John Wayne movies who never reflected or questioned himself, who always knew exactly who his enemies were, who was always fighting but never at fault, is inadequate for today.

The soldier, who is taught to sacrifice gentleness, sensitivity, and compassion in order to be unemotional, competitive, and ruthless, reaches ''a historical dead end'' in the nuclear age, he continues. ''The 'masculine' traits that formerly assured survival will now, if not balanced by the 'feminine,' assure destruction,'' he writes.

It's not enough, though, to do away with yesterday's heroes, Gerzon insists. We need to find new ones. ''We need heroes,'' he says, ''because a civilization depends on advancing the definition of what good and evil mean.''

Gerzon probably owes his interest in cultural crosscurrents, international affairs, and ''macho'' politics, which surface frequently in his book, to his background. He grew up in Indianapolis, one of four children of an immigrant Dutch chemist. He was educated at Harvard, where he majored in world affairs. He was an undergraduate when his first book, ''The Whole World Is Watching,'' was published.

A few years later Gerzon helped launch World Paper, an international newspaper supplement devoted to improved understanding among peoples. His journalistic work took him to the Soviet Union, China, India, the Mideast, and Europe. He's now studying and practicing family counseling.As we talk, five-year-old Ari Gerzon, just home from kindergarten, bounds into the room to greet his father and then to play with a video game. Mark Gerzon asks him to wait until later, but Ari's unhappy stare produces a compromise: He can play if he'll keep the sound turned down. . . .

Click. An ice hockey field materializes on the screen, and Ari prods the controls to position players in front of a moving puck.''

Good steal, Ari. . . . Good pass! Take it in,'' shouts his father.

Ari's heroes are ''Celtic players and some Luke Skywalker types of people,'' Gerzon says. His own childhood heroes were Wyatt Earp, Matt Dillon, Davy Crockett, Superman. ''They were good at violence - they had brute force.'' Gerzon's heroes today are different. They include Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. , Lech Walesa - people who share ''a certain moral courage, which lies not in their ability to exert their will through physical violence, but on their own moral authority to inspire other people in a cause that furthers basic human values.''

At least one of Gerzon's heroes is a woman. He describes his wife, Shelley, as ''a sweet and gentle person, but she is also a strong, determined woman who has been influenced by feminism.'' He says ''A Choice of Heroes'' wouldn't exist without her.

Though many feminists would probably applaud Gerzon's book, he never argues that men ought to change to please women; he insists, rather, that men owe it to themselves to cast off old stereotypes.

One of those stereotypes is the role of ''breadwinner,'' Gerzon argues. In his book he examines career-driven husbands who have no time for their wives or children, and he commends the advent of the two-career family as healthy - provided it allows both partners to share in the child-rearing.

''Some sociologist would say that there are all kinds of things we think we can afford in our relatively affluent culture, and one of the things that the new generation thinks it can afford is to be a father,'' Gerzon explains. Most men in the '50s and '60s didn't think of this. They used the money to take an extra vacation or build a swimming pool.

''It was put in material terms,'' Gerzon says. ''It took a while for it to dawn on men that one of the things we can do with financial freedom is improve the emotional experience of our lives - by having more time with our children.''

Gerzon notes that men were also trapped by the image of themselves as ''experts.'' For example, in the medical profession, doctors didn't want to share their status with the women who traditionally assisted in childbirth. At the turn of the century there were 3,000 midwives in New York City; by World War II there were 200; and in 1963 there were none. ''The expert had won,'' Gerzon writes. ''Unable to bear children himself, (he) had achieved the next best thing: power over those who could.'' Today Gerzon sees the expert mentality being replaced by the more egalitarian image of the ''colleague.''

In a chapter near the end of the book, Gerzon turns to religion. Too many churches, he says, still cling tightly to an image of a male God, a patriarchy ''worshiping, in effect, their own sex.'' He finds it heartening that a growing number of denominations now recognize a God that embraces feminine as well as masculine qualities.

In the governmental area Gerzon cites ''sexual politics'' as partly to blame for foreign policy fiascos like the Bay of Pigs. The decision to invade Cuba was made, not on the merits of the plan, but because ''bellicose men of action advocated toughness,'' and ''dissenters were afraid of looking soft.''

Gerzon predicts that the ''new'' man, with the compassion and sensitivity he sees beginning to emerge, could ''end the arms race, world hunger, poverty; could improve and extend education. At the bottom of the arms race is a mutual mistrust. What it's going to take is men of true compassion and sensitivity to overcome it. I cannot begin to imagine the impact it would have on the Soviet Union if an American president would make a compassionate statement about what they had endured as a people, what World War II did to them, how they turned a poor country into a superpower - without conceding anything to them about human rights or their system.

''In foreign affairs everything seems to become a test of our manhood. If our country could get past this, I do believe it could be an extraordinary force for good in this world.''

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