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Preventing sexual violence, by raising healthy boys

June 29, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, June 27, 2017

Thanks to the strong voices and courageous actions of our local middle school students, the opportunity for promoting a school climate that ensures a safe learning environment for all has gotten our attention. Now we need to follow up with action.

Last week, students at JFK Middle School in Northampton, MA peacefully protested — twice — asserting that sexual harassment is prevalent among their peers and that the response of school staff has been inadequate. According to a front-page story in the Gazette, one student said she reported to school officials that she had been sexually harassed by a group of boys and was told that this behavior was common for kids their age and that if she was uncomfortable returning to the class, she could sit in the library for a few days.

As a father to a daughter, who in two years will be a student at that school, and to a son who will be there two years later, I am disheartened — yet not surprised, sadly — at the thought that an adult in a position of power would normalize sexual harassment.

As a neighbor to children who currently attend this school, at least one of whom participated in the protest, I stand with them.

And, as the executive director of MERGE for Equality, a Florence-based nonprofit organization with a mission to engage people and communities in transforming masculinity to advance gender equality, I am emboldened by the determination of the protesting students.

Sexual harassment is a form of interpersonal violence that is offensive, unacceptable — and experienced by many school-age children.

A five-year study led by youth violence expert Dorothy Espelage, found that upwards of 43 percent of middle school students surveyed reported having experienced verbal sexual harassment, and 21 percent reported experiencing physical sexual harassment or assault. This includes unwanted sexually explicit notes, jokes, verbal comments, cyber messages and grabbing of body parts. Findings suggest that girls, as well as transgender and gender non-conforming youth, are more likely than boys to be sexually harassed.

Erin Prangley, of the American Association of University Women, asserts “many school cultures trivialize harassment, tolerate language that degrades women and leave unchallenged the misconception that masculinity means being superior and aggressive and femininity means being inferior and submissive.”

Emily Austin, executive director of Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, a California-based nonprofit organization, stated “unaddressed sexual harassment and assault incidents in K-12 schools are the training ground for college sexual assaults,” which are occurring at epidemic levels.

It is offensive to excuse sexual harassment with the age-old adage “boys will be boys;” it is never excusable. Furthermore, reinforcing this dehumanizes boys and men, by suggesting that males are inherently violent. In fact, all boys — like all children — are born loving, caring and sensitive.

This has been evident to me as I’ve observed both my son and my daughter from the moments I first held each one.

Yet, sadly, we begin shaping gender differences in children before they are born, forcing social and cultural expectations on them.

For boys, that means learning and conforming to social norms that require physical strength, emotional stoicism, and social autonomy as evidence of manliness. As adults we reinforce this message through shame, by telling boys — even the very young — to “man up!”

And, in the classroom, on the playground, and in the locker room, boys who fail to fulfill these cultural expectations — boys who dare to be creative, sensitive, artistic, nurturing and caring — are subject to name-calling: fag, homo, queer, and, what the bullies intend as the ultimate put down, girl.

Sexual harassment is directly linked to homophobic insults, according to Espelage, whose research demonstrated that youths use such slurs to gain social standing over other students. Then, the youth who are victimized in this way are compelled to prove they are not gay or lesbian by sexually harassing peers of the opposite sex.

Recently MERGE for Equality convened its 4th Annual Healthy Men and Boys Summit. This year’s theme was, ‘Raising Emotionally and Socially Connected Boys.’ Keynote presenter and developmental psychologist, Dr. Niobe Way, who has studied the social and emotional lives of boys for nearly 30 years, and whose findings are consistent with Espelage’s research, encouraged those present to “notice and nurture resistance to harmful masculinity norms.”

The JFK Middle School students are giving us an opportunity to do that.

We can do it through compassion, by supporting and nurturing the caring side of boys and men; through accountability, by insisting that boys and men model respect through their words and behavior; and through partnership, by working together to change the way we socialize boys.

MERGE for Equality publicly invites youth and adults from the JFK Middle School community to join us in our recently launched Children’s Book Campaign. Over the next 12-months a diverse committee of educators and literacy specialists will help identify children’s books, which reflect themes of positive masculinity and gender equality. A guide will be offered to initiate discussions among adults and children. Distribution of books will target schools, libraries and settings that support children and will be based on available funding. Stories highlighting the use of these books will be collected and shared.

MERGE is prepared to join with the JFK community to identify a book and support conversations as early as this summer.

Learn more about the campaign by visiting: or contact us at

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website


Celebrating a birthday alone in the woods

May 24, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, May 23, 2017

Recently I enjoyed a day-long hike. It was a Friday, my 51st birthday, and I had cleared my work schedule in advance. As soon as Zoe and Adam, my 10- and 7-year-olds, rolled away on the morning school bus, I headed to the trailhead, about a 15-minute drive from home.

The absence of cars — and even better, people — at the parking area, brought a smile to my face. I enjoyed a couple of gulps from my water bottle before shouldering the small red pack, which contained a light windbreaker, food, first aid kit and basic emergency supplies.

The air was chilly, the sky cloudy. As the forest enveloped me, its many shades of green came into relief. Bird songs and leaves rustling in the breeze played like soft musical notes, set against a backdrop of profound silence.

Twenty minutes into my hike, I paused at a grand overlook, the place where on our family hikes the four of us break for water and snacks, mountain views stretching along the eastern horizon.

I continued on, passed the Beaver Pond and onto a section of the trail where Zoe’s and Adam’s legs have not ventured, to explore the unknown. Three hours out, three back — the trail offered me six hours of bliss and a precious reminder.

I watched a red tail hawk hunt, and a newt swim in a vernal pool. I was greeted by a porcupine, which twice turned its back toward me, before lumbering away. I saw fresh deer and moose tracks, scat of coyote and bear. It reminded me that the natural pace of life is different than the frenetic pace of my own, where my personal, family, work and community roles perpetually collide.

Time slowed during my hike, and after. I felt more spacious, that day, and throughout the following week. In this state, I remembered — once again — that my best humanness thrives under these conditions.

I am more open to ideas and suggestions. I say yes and maybe, more than no. I ask more questions, offer fewer answers. My mind feels fresh — less forgetful, confused and overwhelmed. The world appears full of possibility, and fewer obstacles.

A certain ease, at home and work, results. Though conflicts arise and challenges emerge, they are less unsettling. I function more as the husband, father, friend, colleague and neighbor that I want to be.

Running, meditation and writing — my regular practices — help balance and sustain me. But time alone in the woods is different, more enduring. So, while in recent years, a day-long hike is my special birthday ritual, I am thinking I need to celebrate my life, family and fatherhood — alone in the woods — far more often.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

Father reflects on entering the sandwich generation

April 28, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, April 26, 2017

Recently my mother took ill. She has been in relatively good health and recently celebrated her 75th birthday at her 55-plus, residential community. So, when my sister called to report my mother was in an ambulance, and possibly had suffered a stroke, I was surprised, and scared.

Fortunately, my mother’s condition quickly stabilized while she received a few days of great care in the hospital, followed by a week in a rehabilitation center. She then returned to independent living, where she received a couple of weeks of home care visits.

And so I found myself, along side my generational peers, a member of the sandwich generation, pressed between the need to care for both young children and aging parents. And while I initially felt some panic and stress from this double responsibility, I also have come to appreciate a few unexpected gifts, which accompanied this unexpected, yet predictable, episode.

First, I am grateful for my sister’s astute perception and quick action. She was speaking to my mother by phone and noticed my mother was struggling to speak and think clearly. Immediately suspecting a stroke — despite the fact that my mother has never experienced one — she called the front desk at my mother’s residential community and requested a room check. They shared my sister’s concerns and called for an ambulance.

During the following days of treatment, I chose to support from a distance, attempting to balance work, family and supporting the process in the way I thought I was best equipped. My sister texted a string of hourly and daily updates and put me on speaker phone as soon as a doctor or case manager entered the room.

With the support of my wife, Lori, who has more than 20 years experience as a health care professional — including rehabilitation of stroke patients — I was able to ask key questions and advocate for care in ways that were helpful. Even my father, more than 20 years divorced from my mother and who has a past, scary, stroke history, was able to offer timely advice to me, which I immediately put to use when on the phone with the cardiologist.

Our family is no stranger to pain and separation, bearing bruises from past hurts and unresolved conflicts. Yet, during this brief episode, we pulled together to function as a team, effectively managing a difficult situation, an unfamiliar — yet welcome — experience.

With my mother quickly returning to her daily routines, my focus has shifted forward. In many ways, we were fortunate — this time — since the impact of her stroke was relatively mild, a great blessing indeed.

But I also learned that she had neglected to put her legal affairs in order, an unsettling thought in the wake of this recent scare. First, I felt some judgment about my mother’s inactions, followed by resentment with the thought that I was the person best positioned to support her with putting together end-of-life plans. Then I realized that Lori and I had not fared any better in this endeavor.

To Lori’s credit, she has been encouraging us to create a will and other health care plans – pushing, prodding and pulling together resources. But I have presented a string of excuses — for years — thus preventing us from completing basic plans designed to ease the burden of managing important life and death circumstances.

Reflecting on the recent situation with my mother has created greater urgency for me to work with Lori to put our own legal plans in place. So, with our 10 and 7 year-old Zoe and Adam clamoring for our attention, we have been discussing and learning about the basics of estate planning, including health care proxies, advanced medical directives and living wills, as well as financial powers of attorney and wills.

And while we have yet to fully complete the process, it feels good to be working on it together, especially knowing that we are putting important protections in place for each other, and for Zoe and Adam. It also feels good to learn important information that will be useful as I seek to support my mother with her own legal planning.

This recent experience, both caring for our young children, and supporting my aging mother, helped us grow closer as a family, not pull us apart. And while the road ahead will surely be more complicated, I am learning that life in the sandwich generation includes unexpected blessings, too.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

Bonding through haircuts (and burritos)

April 3, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, March 29, 2017

“Your hair is getting too long.” I remember those words, delivered more with shame than care, when I was a kid. Parents, teachers and coaches alike – back in the 1970’s – found it both duty and right to ensure that boys’ hair remained tightly cropped.

Perhaps they were just defending the status quo – a post war 1950’s version of American culture – ensuring that kids from respectable families and communities did not venture down the path of longhaired, counter-culture types.

Nonetheless, I clung to my medium to slightly long hair style – like most of my peers – throughout my school years and college, venturing for a few tumultuous years in my late 20’s to a ponytail of respectable length, before shaving my head bald. Since that decisive moment, I have been a fan of the good old, fashioned buzz cut (an 1/8 to ¼ inch in length) the preferred look of – my father’s era!

My reasons are pragmatic, mostly. It’s very easy to manage – I’m in and out of the barber chair in under 10-minutes (and for a fraction of what my wife Lori pays for a hair styling, although her hair is lovely), only a drop of shampoo is required for each washing, and I never have bed or hat head.

My son Adam (and daughter Zoe) have only seen me with short hair – and occasionally a clean, shaven head. Not surprisingly, while I fully support Adam’s hair choices, and at age 7 he certainly has a strong opinion on the matter, he generally prefers to join me for a buzz cut, accept when he would rather not.

So, wanting to avoid the hair battles of my childhood, I incentivize our outings with lunch – buzz and burritos, and in seasonable weather – bike, buzz and burritos.

And though we relish our hair outings, we both lean toward a DIY approach to life, often musing about owning gear for do-it-yourself hair trimming.

So on a recent outing to a local big box store where we trolled the isles for plaster of pairs and petroleum jelly (materials for Adam’s upcoming school science fair project), our eyes locked on a spectacle of great desire.

The words, “VIRTUALLY INDESTRUCTIBLE HAIRCUT TRIMMER,” and “For your clipping and trimming needs” boldly appeared on the bright black and yellow package, along with an image of a man giving himself a buzz cut.

Adam’s eyes (and mine) instantly registered impulse buy.

We quickly justified the purchase, reveling at the 15-piece kit, lifetime warranty and industrial power cord. The rigorous product testing (documented by online videos) sealed the deal. Never missing a teachable moment, I coached Adam through some quick calculations and he soon realized the cost of the clippers was less than two barbershop visits, such a deal!

Arriving home, we immediately set up shop in the kitchen. Fresh in my mind was Lori’s voice of disapproval, as she is still haunted by the hair cut – that went badly – which she received from her father as a child. So, I decided we should start by having Adam cut my hair. He eagerly complied.

I had seriously under-estimated the pure joy this activity would offer Adam, and me. After a few successful swipes through my hair with the clippers, Adam gleefully cried, “We’re professionals!” Moments later, welling with a sense of pride at his craftsmanship, he proclaimed, “ This is a new skill!”

About the time Adam had my head looking quite – in process, Zoe and Lori arrived home, stunned by the kitchen scene. Adam grinned widely for his audience. We wrapped up and took a lunch break before the next customer.

To my surprise, Adam insisted on buzzing his own head, while I held a mirror. It was slow going, but his sense of determination was formidable.

The whole affair was a smashing success, until the very end. As I cleaned up his neck line, tears of protest erupted as he screamed, “That hurts!” It turns out the cutting edge of the clippers gets hot after cropping a full head of hair, who knew? Lori glared with a look of “I told you so!”

After a few hugs and strategizing that next time we should let the clippers cool before finishing touches, we were ready for those product-testing videos.

After watching a pair of the clippers survive being run over by a truck, dropped three stories onto concrete, and whacked across the infield with an aluminum bat, we were even more confident our purchase would provide a lifetime of father-son haircut bonding.

And, following our next buzz cuts we will perfect our do-it-yourself burritos!

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website


Compassion is solution to parenting puzzle

February 23, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, February 22, 2017

Lately I have been puzzled. My wife, Lori, and I are blessed as parents of two loving children, Zoe and Adam, who are absolutely wonderful with each other — in a best friends sort of way — almost all of the time. And when they are not, it’s exhausting!

“He’s touching me!”

“She got to be first last time!”

“He’s cheating!”

“She won’t leave me alone!”

At ages 10 and 7, respectively, Zoe and Adam’s behavior is more common than perplexing, as most parents attest. The mystery, for me, is: Why are humans — of all ages — especially during times of conflict, apt to focus more on assigning blame, and less on compassion. Fortunately, reflection on seemingly unrelated events has offered me insight.

Recently, a couple of families in our close circles have been experiencing horrendous hardship. From afar, Lori and I have provided emotional support to each, grateful for the opportunity to express our care. And, after a week when circumstances were especially intense, I was feeling drained — my mind was foggy, my energy low, and I felt irritable.

I started distracting myself by reading online political news, junk food for my unsettled mind. I was instantly reminded of the raging public discourse, in the both local and national media, which I had mostly filtered out in the past couple of months.

Then I began to realize the parallels in these recent experiences. During the run up to the 2016 Presidential election, I became deeply immersed in the campaign issues and outcomes, as did millions of Americans. For many, myself included, the campaign was emotionally intense, and then the outcome left many of us overwhelmed — with foggy minds, low energy and feeling irritable.

That I felt similarly after investing emotional energy in both the election and friends in crisis left me puzzled, until I was reminded that compassion literally means “to suffer together;” to notice human suffering and to feel the impulse to alleviate it.

To suffer with another, for me, is infinitely harder, and generally less appealing, than holding someone responsible, especially if I can blame and find fault in someone else, which I was drawn to do in both the election and with those who were the source of our friends’ struggles.

Then I thought of Zoe and Adam, and the puzzle pieces clicked together. I began asking myself: How can I more intentionally practice and model compassion for them — especially when they are in conflict with each other — rather than assign responsibility, or blame, which I am prone to do.

There is growing evidence that practicing compassion has many benefits, including more caring parenting, marriages, friendships, workplaces and communities. It also makes people more resilient and happier.

So, while holding myself, and others accountable is both noble and necessary for helping right injustices in the world, I am realizing the equal, if not greater, need to practice compassion. My hope is that doing so will both make for more peaceful families, and more civil societies.

For more on compassion visit

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

Finding political voice, as a family

January 29, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, January 25, 2017

I’m not a fan of political marches. I find crowds and chanting masses unappealing. And, I am dubious about the lasting impact of such gatherings.

My stance is partly a function of my introverted personality; I prefer less social stimulation, not more. But it’s also a function of privilege. As a white, heterosexual, middle-class, Christian raised, English speaking, college-educated, American male, my civil rights and liberties have never been in serious jeopardy.

But when my wife Lori and I began to learn of the Women’s March in Washington, scheduled for the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th U.S. President, we felt that marching – as a family – was a moral imperative, though we opted for a local event.

So, on a sunny, unseasonably warm Saturday morning, after returning from our son Adam’s 8:00 a.m. indoor soccer game, we rested, refueled and quickly made a sign. Crafting symbols and words on a large sheet of cardboard – peace, love, hope and light – we offered aspirations for the next four years. Then we drove to a point near the start of the march and set off on foot to assemble with the others.

Like many, we were largely silent during the march. Mostly we read the eclectic mix of signs, listened to chants, and marveled at the turnout, which stretched, one lane wide, along a mile of city-street. Parents carried babies and pushed strollers, children and adults of all ages lifted signs, some rode in wheel chairs, others on bikes, while still more waived from the curb.

We stayed close together, our family sign resting high on my shoulders, and Zoe and Adam beamed at the occasional site of their elementary school friends. As we approached the town center, the crowd’s energy surged and I felt an unexpected surge of emotion, tears briefly welling up in my eyes as I appreciated the significance of the moment – for our family, community and nation.

By the time we reached the end point, Zoe and Adam were far more interested in food and restrooms than protest speeches, so we found lunch and then headed to a nearby playground before returning home.

That evening, dinner conversation offered a few moments for reflection. When asked about what they noticed at the march, Zoe remarked that there were so many signs, and recalled a chat about women’s rights and human rights. Adam observed that there were so many people and that they were well behaved.

So while we were far from the sea of people who gathered in Washington, D.C., I believe the collective expression of those with whom we marched left indelible impressions on Zoe and Adam, which means while this was our first march as a family, it won’t be our last.


Holidays are a time to celebrate gifts that endure

December 28, 2016

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, December 28, 2016

For many, gift giving is customary this time of year. And while we honor both Hanukkah and Christmas traditions in our home, my wife, Lori, and I place simplicity and moderation ahead of excess. Still, Zoe and Adam, our 10 and 7 year-olds, are wildly enthusiastic about gifts.

And while Zoe is more focused on the joy of gift giving these days, Adam, brimming with innocence and curiosity, is in tireless pursuit of a comprehensive understanding of the gift supply chain.

Back in October, he and I teamed up for our annual chimney-cleaning project. Adam’s job is to stand guard in the doorway, making sure the plastic bag we duct taped to the bottom of the stovepipe remains fastened, preventing soot from filling our living room. Apparently, while I was perched upon high, ramming a circular brush attached to a 16-foot pole up and down the pipe, Adam was pondering the physics of chimney travel.

Back on the ground, we celebrated the success of our collective efforts. Then, Adam, with a bit of a grin, asked: “How does Santa fit down the chimney with our presents with that metal pipe in the way?”

Pausing, and grinning in return, I said, “Great question. Maybe he uses the back door.”

“Yeah, but how does he get in if the door is locked?” he asked.

I just shrugged and we moved on to lunch.

About a month later, Adam advanced the conversation.

“Dad, how do the reindeer fly around the world in one night?”

I reminded him of the paradigm shifting idea he postulated last year, namely there must be more than one Santa and more than one set of reindeer, and that together they are able to get the job done in one night, a blue print for a Santa franchise.

Wiser in the ways of planetary science this year he reasoned, “Yeah, because since night-time comes later some places than others that means they have more time to get to all the houses.”

These musings reminded me of my own childhood, when at a tender young age I tried to make sense of the mysteries of the Santa tradition, wanting to debunk its validity, while still clinging to hope that it was real.

But access to high-tech tools and big data have bolstered Adam’s methods of inquiry far beyond my wildest childhood dreams.

For example, he recently picked up my iPhone, pressed the main button and spoke, “Siri, Is Santa Claus real?” Fortunately Siri, the artificial intelligence voice embedded in Apple products, generated the same type of inconclusive response that my parents offered when I was a kid.

Undeterred, Adam reframed his question, “Siri, What is Santa?”

A week later, after considering additional data — the steady flow of delivery trucks in our neighborhood — Adam shared his updated thoughts. “I don’t think the elves make all the presents. I think they order some from Amazon and have them delivered by a UPS truck. That’s how they can get so many presents to all the houses on time for Christmas.”

I don’t know when Adam’s fascination with the Santa tradition will end, but I will be sad when it does. And, I hope one day he will experience the joy of this tradition, as a father.

In the meantime — amid the crazy, commercialized, high-tech gift industry of our rapidly expanding global economy — I will cherish the enduring gifts of joy, curiosity and family.

And, despite my commitment to go local, I am considering adding shares of Apple, UPS and Amazon stock to my wish list.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website