Beating a Manly Retreat


SPRING HAS FINALLY arrived, and the men are heading to their outbuildings. After a long winter, everyone is once again getting a wide berth. In my rural-ish area, two hours north of New York City, things are spread out enough so that there is often the option of having a separate structure on one’s property. This can range from a simple, crude shed to a repurposed chicken coop to a large converted barn. Virginia Woolf got it right when she said women needed “a room of one’s own.” Well, men seem to want to be in an entirely separate building.

I’ve noticed that at nearly every summer party, at a certain point there is a group of men standing around together looking at an outbuilding. Someone has recently built a new structure, or re-jiggered an old one, and it’s being discussed and admired. These are not mountain men, I should point out, but guys who used to stand around and listen to Yo La Tengo play in Hoboken, who make indie horror films and teach postmodern lit and engage in avant-garde puppetry. The things they discuss and admire could include something as basic as a shed to hold firewood or a cleverly built thing meant to hide an unsightly propane tank. Even structures that are not large enough for a person to spend time in elicit a certain excitement among the men. Men love erecting things, so it makes sense that they would love the opportunity to build something, anything. After all, the time spent building is time spent out of the house.

A man cave waiting to happen

But it’s the buildings that can truly serve as man caves that are the real prize. It’s the grown-up version of the boys’ clubhouse. When, several years ago now, musician-husband and I bought our place upstate, one of our first projects was to convert the upper floor in the barn-garage into work space. But it would also be space, it turned out, to put drums, guitars, and recording equipment and to serve as a “studio,” a place to make unfettered sounds, a place to wander out to under a starry sky. Musician-husband was very motivated to get that project under way.

At a gathering in the yard one summer evening, a friend of a friend who was invited over asked to see the recently completed studio. I led him upstairs to show him the space. “Wow,” he said. “If I had a place like this, I’d be out here jerking off all the time.” I have to admit I was a bit taken aback. I thought it was a strange first reaction to the place, but then what do I know. Maybe over the years lots of men have had that reaction but just didn’t say it out loud.

“A man must have a shed to keep him sane” goes a line in an XTC song. In England, the shed—originally a garden shed—has a long tradition behind it. There’s even a website over there called shedblog, devoted to the “shed elite.” Last year’s winner in their Shed of the Year contest was a building called Wood Henge, which included space for a collection of five hundred bottles of ale. An article a few years back in the Telegraph explained that, “By tradition [the shed] is a male preserve, where the man of the house can retreat out of range of predators and tormentors, real or imagined, and can indulge in habits, such as smoking or daydreaming, nowadays regarded as antisocial.” Predators and tormentors could apply to so many things, including life partners (as well as temporary ones), children, the Internet, debt collectors, undeservedly successful friends, and anyone or anything that can potentially destroy one’s peace of mind. It’s a place to have a “mancation,” a respite even from the man himself, who drags through life sometimes unsure of what it’s all for.

This one, on wheels, has the advantage of providing escape at any moment.

A male friend who used to sometimes retreat to an old camper on his land tells me he thinks the outbuilding is a response to “an unnatural amount of modern time under the same roof. In the past men were out more, hunting, etc. Now everyone is at home together way too much. For me it strums a slight primal chord of independence to be near home but not in home.”

From Wikipedia: “A man cave, sometimes a manland, mantuary or manspace, is a male sanctuary, such as a specially equipped garage…den, or basement. It is not a cave but rather a metaphor describing a room inside the house…or outside the house such as a wood shed or tool room, where ‘guys can do as they please’ without fear of upsetting any female sensibility about house décor or design. Paula Aymer of Tufts University calls it ‘the last bastion of masculinity.’”

Wikipedia entries are often bad, but this one is especially grating. The last bastion of masculinity? One hopes there’s a little masculinity left over for other areas of life. The unattributed quote “guys can do as they please” sounds a little bitter, but we’ll let that one go for now, assuming the entry was being written by a frustrated guy longing for a cave of his own.

Sometimes they’re described as “shops”—i.e., workshops. This is where a lot of fixing and tinkering goes on. Projects. Sometimes these projects are swiftly completed and sometimes they’re lifelong works-in-progress. There’s nothing wrong with this. One man on the shedblog website says his wife is quite happy to get him out of the house. In other words, it’s working for everyone.

Passions are explored. Pursuits that were abandoned along the way are taken up again. Obsessions are carefully tended to, away from society’s critical eye. Bad moods and crankiness can be nursed privately (men often need to do it that way).

As someone who has always needed her fair share of privacy, I can see the appeal. I support the need of any man for a man cave/shed/outbuilding of any sort. Space is a beautiful thing. And I don’t doubt that great things go on in those buildings. But I don’t necessarily need to know the details.

About Janet Steen

Janet Steen started on the editorial staff at Esquire, where she tweaked the prose of writers including Norman Mailer, Denis Johnson, and Mary Gaitskill. She went on to become the books editor at Time Out New York, an editor at Us Weekly, and the literary editor at Details. She has written for the New York Times, Interview, Details, Us Weekly, and Time Out New York. Her profile subjects include such widely varying personalities as Steve Martin, Barry White, Martin Amis, and Dennis Hopper. She edits books and is a co-founder of, and lives in upstate N.Y.
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7 Responses to Beating a Manly Retreat

  1. In France, the word for outbuilding is “dépendance”. Whether it should be masculine or feminine has yet to really be determined.

    Anyway, nicely done, you had us at “Beating a manly retreat.”

  2. reg schroeder says:

    great story. like the “men like to erect things” maybe the best.
    its so nice to have a female willing to write about such things without shame.
    i think i would like to meet you. paul macartny built a shack out back for his own manhood but the community made him tare it down as it was on historical grounds. i felt really sorry when i heard that. i’d like to meet him too.

  3. Melissa Holbrook Pierson says:

    Smart, smart, smart! Bravo, Janet. By the way, I will allow anyone to come and gaze admiringly at my girl cave: it’s got motorcycles, mice, and a boombox. And a chandelier. But I will not allow them to do . . . uh, THAT in there. OK?

  4. Pingback: Beating a Manly Retreat — The Good Men Project

  5. Thomas Atkins says:

    I found this site, (and this essay in particular) wending along the New Age driftnet for lost souls, by way of searching for poetry readings in the Hudson Valley. This essay displays a clever variation on the current trend of mocking heterosexual, European-American men. Nothing within the context of “Beating a Manly Retreat” will shock(nor celebrate). With the innuendo from the title to “erecting,” the mockery is both evident and carefully buried.
    Typical of third wave feminism in the United States of Corporations.

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