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Other Men Need Help: A Conversation with Mark Pagán | The Man Project

in Gender and Sexual Identity by

Mark Pagán is a former B-boy living in New York City. He’s also the creator and host of the podcast, Other Men Need Help. It’s a hilarious yet poignant look at manhood and the insecurities that come with it.

In one of my favorite episodes, Shirtless Studs & Southwest Salads, he tells the story of trying to get over the breakup of one of his ex-girlfriends. I won’t go into detail about what happens, but it involves him weeping uncontrollably over some corn in the middle of the produce section of his local grocery store.

I had the chance to chat with Mark over the phone about why he started the podcast, his insecurities as a man, and how the death of his father affected his masculinity.

Ark Republic: Hi Mark!

Mark: Hey Charlie, how are you?

Ark Republic: I’m good. So, I devoured your podcast. I think it’s hilarious and moving. It’s one of my favorites. That’s why I reached out to you because what I really appreciate about it, are the stories and the people you talk to, and the fact that you’re not afraid to talk about some really personal and embarrassing things you’ve done in the name of masculinity. And your podcast really stuck with me because I’ve done a lot of those things. I think you tackle the topic of what it means to be a man, tearing down these stereotypes we have about manhood, beautifully.

Mark: I really appreciate what you said.

Ark Republic: What made you want to start this podcast? It feels like, listening to it, that you’ve been thinking about masculinity and what that means your whole life.

Mark: Yeah, it feels that way. I grew up with a lot of men’s magazines and I really devoured them. Instead of giving me a discussion about what masculinity is or this or that, I would love for someone to say, “Yeah, I fucking shaved my chest for a date. I’m going to own this. I’m Dan Rather. I did that.” Can you imagine if somebody at that level did that? It would be monumental, culturally, if bigger figures were doing that. In some ways, this is where the conversation for me needed to start. And I really wanted to hear more of it from makers and men.

But yeah, I’ve been fascinated by what men do for a long time. I think it’s partly, there wasn’t a sanctioned boys space that I really fit into. I wasn’t an athlete. And cub scouts and things like that just didn’t really fit for me. I was an early media consumer of stuff that probably I shouldn’t have watched. And I was like, oh, “this is what men do?” I was just fascinated. And there are good things I picked up and a lot of bad things. And those are some of the ingredients that led to this.

Ark Republic: One of my favorite episodes of your podcast Other Men Need Help is the “Shirtless Studs & Southwest Salads” episode, where you talk about crying at your father’s grave and your friend being there to hold you and you just cried in his arms. And I thought that was something really, really beautiful and something that you just don’t ever hear about. I was trying to think about when I finally cried about the death of my father. I didn’t know him growing up and had met him when I was 20. And then he died just a couple of years later. And I don’t think I ever really cried for him. There are times when I have a very difficult time crying. Like when I lost a loved one or something traumatic happens to me. But there are other times when I cry at commercials.

Mark: Have your sons or your wife ever seen you cry?

Charles: My older son has seen me tear up while watching E.T. That movie gets me every time. I didn’t let it all out because I felt silly. I think at one point I saw him wiping his face too. My wife has seen me cry full on, but I honestly can’t remember how long ago that was. And I think it’s only been one time. But for some reason, I have a hard time giving myself permission to cry, either in front of my family or even by myself. I don’t know why. But I don’t want my boys to feel like they have to hide crying. Because there’s nothing wrong with it.

But I also related to the experience you talked about in the first episode of your first season about watching men in movies and having posters of men actors and celebrities on the wall in your room. I thought that was really interesting.

Mark: Yeah. So, we’re done with the second season, and we’re starting the conversation about season three. And it’s still, every single season, I just come back to those images. Those childhood memories resonate. They still stay with you. And I definitely feel there is a lot of, just sort of speaking to the void of Dad. And I definitely see that I seem to just keep speaking to that wound. And the hope is that by understanding it, I can sort of really lean into the connections that are available to me now with men and women and anybody in my life.

Ark Republic: How long has it been since your father passed away?

Mark: He died in May 1993 so it’ll be 26 years next month.

Ark Republic: How old were you?

Mark: I was 14.

Ark Republic: How big of an impact did his death have on your masculinity?

Mark: Well, I think as an indirect answer, I look at things I’ve done over the years, work-wise as well as creatively and every single year where I’m working on something, I’m like, “My God, we’re talking about dad again.” It’s another sort of dead dad story again. But then again, your life is spent speaking to wounds, and you get better at addressing them. But there are themes of your life that will never go away and they’ve made you. So in a lot of ways I’ve embraced that. There were three things in particular with my dad and my relationship with him, maybe four, that were very striking in terms of how I’ve responded to masculinity at that age and how I’ve continued to feel curious and insecure about it.

My father was much older than my mother, so by the time he died, he wasn’t very virile. He was in his sixties, which in this day and age isn’t old, but he didn’t take care of himself. So he felt old. The other thing is that, in some ways, very typically, he wasn’t around that much. They were married, but my dad traveled and worked. He was just a workaholic and he was just never really around. And as I found out later, he was also a philanderer. And then the third thing is that he was gone. He was gone at the age of 14, at a time when we probably would have had our most friction because teenagers can be little pricks. We battle with the elders, But I really, really needed that father figure.

And the other bad side of it too is he left right when I was getting to that age. So he left sort of heroically. We never had a falling out. He left because he died. There was no narrative other than he died and it wasn’t something where he took his life, in which there can be such complicated feelings with friends and loved ones when that happens. There was no selfish act on his part. So it has been the constant search for models. So the positive side to this is I have really deep relationships with people in my life and family members. But yeah, I think it’s been the defining marker in my life.

Charles: Like you, I used to emulate other men, trying to figure out the correct way to be a man, because of the lack of a father-figure in my life. For me, it was romantic comedies. I used to watch movies like that godawful one, Bed of Roses, or Say Anything and Reality Bites, to try to figure out how to act around women.

Mark: It’s funny. I kind of feel isolated in this experience and it’s really refreshing to hear it from you. And I didn’t think anybody else did this. I didn’t really talk about it and I didn’t know what anybody else’s experience was. I still find myself looking for validation. I still at this age, you know, my forties, find myself doing that.

Were you worried about having boys?

Ark Republic: I was worried about being a father. I’ve actually always wanted to be a dad as long as I can remember. Once it got closer to that point, I was nervous about it because I didn’t really have an example. I was raised by my aunt. And she raised five of us by herself. And so, that provided some stability in my life, but it also was really stressful. She was stressed all the time because she was raising five of us. She was a paralegal, so she didn’t make a ton of money. So, I’ve been a father for nine years now, with two sons, and I’m still figuring out how to be a good father, a good husband and a good man. That’s why I’m doing this column.

Mark: That’s a good mission. The self-reflection, I think that’s really the biggest starting point. I think culturally for anybody, but let alone men, our power isn’t checked as much. My family is in Maryland and I don’t know how in the world I’ve been able to observe this or been lucky enough to see this, but I’ve seen directly with my sister Lydia and myself, and more with my mother’s company. I am given priority for my opinion. I have more pictures up in the house. I wasn’t aware of that when I was younger. If that was the case, I, I don’t remember. We could say, “oh, that’s just a sibling thing,” or maybe “That’s just arbitrary. ” It’s not, I think it’s very gender based. I can see the steps of even something like that leading me to have a sense of priority and very easily having that unchecked. I think we as men, most men, culturally around the world historically, we’re not taught how to sit with shame. And so we have a hard time sitting with that and that leads to so many dark areas. But yeah, I think the hardest thing can just be to sit with a feeling of shame and own it, of being accountable and knowing when to sit with something that doesn’t feel good. But this is how growth will happen.

Ark Republic: Something I used to struggle with when I first got married was not knowing how to fix things when they broke around the house. But my wife could come in, look at the problem, and be able to fix it in no time. For a long time, as a man. I would get so insecure because I didn’t know how to do something that I felt like I should know how to do. And I would just beat myself up. Is that something you ever felt?

Mark: Yup, I’ve huffed and puffed. My last long term girlfriend before the relationship I’m in right now. She ended up becoming a woodworker. And I didn’t think I was intimidated by it until we had to put something together. We were in a house and she was so adept, and I was sitting there reading the instructions and I had this sort of festering, competitive feeling. I’ve had quite a few instances where it’ll show up as the silent treatment. I am upset about something. It makes me feel insecure. So I will make you pay by being completely distant and stoic and unresponsive. It hurts the partner, but it ends up hurting me more. And then there’s all this shame that comes from it and everything like that. So that’s been the thing that I’ve had to work on and, still continue to work on to be completely honest.

Ark Republic: I also want to talk about your Puerto Rican heritage. Because I really like that that’s such an important part of your podcast. Is your Puerto Rican heritage part of your mother’s side or your father’s side?

Mark: My father’s side. My mom is from southern Indiana and when she and my father met, they were both in New York. My mother was 20 or 21 years younger than my father. But my dad grew up on the island, and he was born sometime in the 1920s and had a bunch of brothers and a sister and they came to the mainland, I guess you could say, sometime in the early to mid-‘40s. But that paternal figure who did represent that cultural identity was gone at an early age.

But also body-wise, how I look, and mannerisms I very clearly identify, at least to myself, as Latino and Caribbean in a lot of ways. But then there are parts where I don’t identify at all. Like the fact I grew up in Maryland. So yeah, it means a lot to me in terms of the show itself. Again, it’s a marker in my life. It’s an identifier. And there are questions I have about not only just gender identification but also cultural identification. But it’s important to me to showcase the variants of not only masculinity but the variants of second and first generation identity in this culture and that, yeah, you can be a pickup-truck-dude and still be super Caribbean. You can have a rural accent or a rural way of talking and still speak fluent Spanish.

Ark Republic: Well, thank you so much for speaking with me Mark. Again, I’m such a big fan of your podcast and the stories you’re telling.

Mark: Thanks. And I appreciate you reaching out and sharing with me, too. I look forward to talking more in some capacity over time.

You can find Mark’s podcast, Other Men Need Help on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and SoundCloud. By the way, it’s just been nominated for a Webby Award. You have until April 18 to vote for it.

Charles Moss is a freelance writer based in Chattanooga with bylines in The Atlantic, Slate, Washington Post, VICE, MOJO Magazine and other publications.

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