Your first reaction, depending on who you are, may be feminist outrage. I urge you to recognize your disagreement, put it away, and then take a deeper look. That said, Amos gets even the introductory exposition to this blog post. Take it away, Amos:
I’ve spent a good deal of time in the last four years considering the value of, and the fragility of, simple male friendship.
I say “simple” friendship because family and partners can maintain a separate and vital status in a person’s life. We’re stuck with the family we’re born into or bear; and divorce, while easy, is not as easy as it could be.
I say “male” friendship because it seems to me that women are, in ways, built more readily for deep bonding with their peers. My sense is that it’s more of an inherent thing, something genetic, but as always with the nature versus nurture question, the answer ends up being “well, some of both.” I haven’t lived as both a man and a woman though, so I can’t be sure. The general roles that evolution has put men and women into (which can be broken or tweaked just fine by a careful society, when needed) lean men at least slightly away from the deep bonding that women seem wired for through.
Male relationships often seem to drift toward (and prefer proximity to) superficiality, fun, and beer. Special people can be special exceptions, but beyond small grace periods, those precepts are broken at the masculine peril of expendability. And stray from the precepts knowing that, in order to call attention to your rule breaking and rescue the friendship, many men would have to become rule breakers too.
And that, rarely, are they willing to do.
Primal hunting and the life-or-death dependence of the military are some things that seem to break this tendency. They seem to tie men together on a deep and emotional level forbidden by our time-constrained lifestyles that offer a million fun replacements for things that displease. What more naturally binds women together seems to more readily remain in the lives we’ve all fallen into.
I always think of the scene in Moby Dick in which one attack of many is mounted on a pod of whales. The males flee individually while the females huddle together, standing by each other even though it may be the germ of their destruction.
I also think of the following passage from “Letters to a Young Poet,” a collection of correspondence doled out by the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
Women, in whom life lingers and dwells more immediately, more fruitfully, and more confidently, must surely have become riper and more human in their depths than light, easygoing man, who is not pulled down beneath the surface of life by the weight of any bodily fruit and who, arrogant and hasty, undervalues what he thinks he loves. This humanity of woman, carried in her womb through all her suffering and humiliation, will come to light when she has stripped off the conventions of mere femaleness in the transformations of her outward status, and those men who do not yet feel it approaching will be astonished by it.
In our everyday American world, bonds with other human beings seem less vital than they might have been at other times, or might be in other places. It’s not generally close bonds with other people that support us, not the fidelity of a tightly-knit community that bails us out when we face a difficult or even dangerous situation. Instead, the money we earn supports and bails. It gives us our food, our shelter, our health care, our transportation, and our entertainment.
In that way, the jobs we hold come to be our most vital companion in life. In that way, the jobs we hold become the important starter for almost any conversation with someone we’re just meeting: “So… what do you do?”
How can simple male friendship compete with this?
Recently, when using Facebook to ponder the significance of my name, a friend replied to me. I was considering how my first name means “Burdened” in Hebrew, and how my last name means “Gamekeeper of a Park” in English. The friend told me that I was wrong in my definitions. He said that Amos Parker actually means “He Who Overanalyzes.”
In pondering the nature of male friendships and overanalysis, I feel as I often do: underanalysis is overrated. Searching for the wellspring of existential loneliness is a worthwhile pastime.
“Hey Devon,” I said. “Good to see you.”
I shook his hand once he’d closed the door.
“Good day at work?” I asked.
“Busy,” Devon said.
“Cancer center’s a great place to work. Life causes cancer. I don’t think I’ll be fired anytime soon.”
I nodded, smiling like a cynic.
“Care for a beer?”
Devon brightened. I already had mine open.
“Hell yeah. Choices?”
“Check the fridge,” I said.
Devon nodded, going to the mini-fridge in the basement where the beer could stay cold without taking up prime real estate.
“What do you feel like doing tonight?” I asked as Devon popped the top and took a swig. He swished it around in his mouth, wondering if he should’ve taken a seasonal brew. He swallowed.
“Oh, I’m ok with anything.”
“You sure?” I asked.
“We can do anything. We can play a videogame, a long board game, a short board game, sit and chat, watch a movie….”
“Anything’s fine, really, just so I can relax. We’re friends. It’s all good.”
“You really don’t care?” I asked.
“No,” Devon said. “It’s up to you.”
“Ok. Well… how about War of the Ring?”
“Oh… yeah…” Devon replied, his facial features twitching like an old building in a strong wind. “I guess. We… might have time, and… I think I remember the rules.”
“Let’s go then,” I said. “Women like to talk about things and men like to do things.”
Devon managed a smile and raised his beer to me. I made a show of ignoring him and clanking mine up against the toaster.
“What are we going to do?”
The man stood outside the house, shivering. His wife’s teeth had chattered as she’d spoken. The man looked at the boards that covered the walls. He didn’t know when he might get another job. Winter was coming, and he worried there’d be no money to keep his family warm.
“I’m looking every day,” the man said. “I’ll find something. I’ll find work.”
His wife shivered. The man put his arm around her.
“We have… enough food in the basement… from the garden…” she said. “But we can’t burn the food. How are we going to keep from freezing this winter?”
The man blew hot breath on his free hand. His wife took the hand from him and tried to warm it herself.
“I’ll think of something,” he replied. “Don’t worry your pretty little head.”
“Hey Devon,” I said. “Can you do me a favor?”
“Sure buddy. What’s up?”
“Great,” I replied, relieved. “You know I’ve got too many board games, right?”
He nodded, half smiling.
“You’ve got a lot of space at your place, right?”
“Can you help me store some of them?”
“Sure!” he said. “I love board games. You know that.”
I smiled and continued. I felt like justifying myself: “I’ve told you why I have so many, right? It’s all I can do to tread water with my job. I don’t feel like I’m gonna mean anything to anyone with work. Sometimes I’m worried I’m gonna die a mediocre failure.”
I trailed off, smiling like I was joking. Devon was silent, waiting.
“Someday I wanna be able to use them to give something back. They bring people together, or they can. You’ve seen that with the guys, right? They’re nothing like what everyone thinks about when they hear the term board games.”
“Someday I want to create a big program, maybe with the library. It’ll be something fun, something that gets people out of the house, away from the TV so they can do something together. It could be a major town thing. I just don’t know how to do it yet, how to pull it off.”
“Sounds great,” Devon replied. “You’ll make it happen.”
“My girlfriend may not be comfortable with the money I’ve spent on them,” I continued. “That’s one of the problems. I have to keep trying though, somehow.
I have to feel like I’m working for something, to have some kind of life raft. And, with the cancer she’s been through, it’s even harder to justify the cost.”
Devon nodded, his expression cooling.
“I feel bad hiding it, but I have to feel like I’m at least trying to do something for people, to give something back. Michele can be so intolerant with things she doesn’t agree with. I have to feel like I’m trying hard, trying my best. Part of that is having a real collection. I’ll come up with something. This’ll buy me time.”
“I’d love to help,” Devon replied. “That’d be sweet to have all that stuff at my place. Mi casa es su casa. Can I paw through it whenever I feel like it?”
“It wouldn’t be a problem?” I asked, tentative in the way I raised my pitch at the end of the question.
“No no no. That’d be awesome. My pleasure.”
“Great!” I said, knocking him playfully on the shoulder.
He jumped a little.
“You’re a good friend,” I added. “If it’s ever a problem, let me know. I don’t want to be a bother, and it’s hard to come by good friends out here in the middle of nowhere. Sure, Saint Johnsbury is a town, but it isn’t much of one, right? All this cold. Everyone hides away, and the one’s who wouldn’t have already run away.”
“You’ve got that right,” Devon replied.
“You feel that too, don’t you?” I was glad to hear that he agreed with me. “I really don’t want to be a problem. I can’t afford to lose any friends.”
“Problem?” Devon replied, laughing just a little too loudly. “Why would you ever be a problem?”
“I’m cold, Dad.”
“Me too, Dad. I can’t stop shivering.”
Both the boy and the girl were doing their best. They tried to be tough. They wore the extra clothes that their parents had found, but layers weren’t enough.
“Let me bring you some food,” their mother said. “It’ll give you some energy, and it’ll warm you up too.”
Their father knew it had to be cooked to really warm them up.
He went outside and looked at all the other houses where they lived. Snow had fallen all over. Icicles were dangling from the homes of some of their neighbors. They were the neighbors who were lucky enough to have the wood to burn, and the heat their fires made escaped up through the roofs and melted the snow there, making the icicles possible.
The man didn’t have any icicles on his house.
Here and there, because he had to, the man began taking boards from the outside of his home. It was only a few, and the house could handle it. The man even convinced himself that it made the house look tougher, more lean and mean.
He took the armloads of boards inside and kept his family warm.
“Hey Devon,” I said.
I stepped in through his door and closed it. I was uncomfortable. I felt out of place, like it was one of those days. My sensitivity was acting up, my low-level autistic fragility. I couldn’t control the feeling. I knew it’d poison things if I couldn’t at least hide it. I tried to figure out where it would stash.
“Amos!” Devon replied. “Now the party can start. Flames of War is on the table. Beer?”
“Sorry I’m late,” I said.
He handed me an ale from the fridge, the top already off. I took a long swallow and hoped for magic.
“Ken’s been working on his bike,” Devon said. “He got some extra oomph for the engine. And there’s a new gun he’s been eyeing. You want a gun for Christmas?”
He jabbed me playfully in the ribs. I almost dropped my beer.
“No thanks. I don’t feel like one.”
“Oh. Well come play with us then.”
“I’ll just watch…” I said.
I was starting to sweat. I felt like I was between a rock and a hard place.
“Thanks though,” I continued. “I don’t really like that game. It’s… painful. It’s like having salt rubbed in my eyes.”
“Oh,” Devon replied. “Ok.”
“Actually, I don’t feel well. I need to go home and write too. I can’t make sure Michele’s taken care of if I don’t make a career of it. I get panic attacks if I have to go more than a day without writing some, and… my windows of time are tiny.”
I wiped at my brow and finished my beer, knowing it wasn’t enough to harm my driving. But I wanted at least that much in me when I thought about having bailed.
“Oh. Ok. Say hi to Michele for me.”
I felt bad about bailing, but it could’ve been worse.
The winter wore on, and it was a cold one.
The food ran low ahead of schedule. The man was more and more worried about his wife and kids. He scoured town up and down for both jobs and wood to keep them warm, but there was nothing to be found that other men hadn’t found already.
Lying in bed one night, holding his wife close, she tried to comfort him.
“You’ll find something honey. Keep your chin up.”
“I can’t,” the man replied. “I can’t keep my chin up. It takes dignity to do that.”
“You have dignity. You have us.”
The man held his wife tightly, trying to keep warm with what she’d said. He could feel the cold all around, and he was worried about the children in the next room. He looked out the window and saw snow falling in the moonlight.
“I’ll be back,” he told her, getting up.
He went out the bedroom door, down the stairs, and outside. There were already holes showing here and there in certain less important walls. One of them kept a closet protected from the winter. Another kept the living room insulated, and they stayed mostly in the bedrooms anyway.
Working quietly with the crowbar, he took off some more boards. By the time he was done, he could see into the kitchen.
He went inside and lit a fire in the stove. He stood by it, warming his hands. He went upstairs, feeling the heat follow him toward the bedrooms. He left the doors to the bedrooms open a little, so that the heat could follow.
“I just can’t deal with it anymore,” Devon emailed me, as part of a long, hard email. “I don’t think we can be friends. I didn’t know what to say when you called me. I really was busy. I think it started during Michele’s treatment. I can’t believe you kept all these board games when the money could have been used to help Michele. She had cancer, man. It’s been making me angry for almost two years now.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I wrote back in desperate reply. “Why’d you send me emails every once in a while saying you’d just been busy when just ignoring me would finally have given me the cowardly hint? Couldn’t you man up instead?”
“I helped you and Michele through her cancer,” Devon wrote, “bringing food and everything. You owe us so much. How selfish are you? When Ali and I moved into the new house a year ago, you didn’t move the games out quickly. I asked you twice. I even had to take your punching bag back to you myself. That was a really hard time for me. I just threw up my hands.”
“You’ve made almost no effort to communicate with me for almost two years,” I wrote back. “And I thought I had the games out by the deadline you gave me. I didn’t even know there were problems between us. How was I supposed to? Do you think I’m psychic? How can I just know that someone has totally changed his mind? Why didn’t anyone tell me? Don’t I deserve at least that respect?”
“I’m sure we both did the best we could,” Devon emailed me. “Have a nice life.”
“The best we could? The best we fucking could? If that was the best you could do,” I emailed back, “you need to polish your best. And the best I could? How could I give my best when I didn’t even know what the work was?”
There was almost nothing left of the house. It couldn’t even hold the heat from the fire long enough to be worth it.
The man, his wife, their daughter, and their son were all near to freezing. There was no work, and there was no wood. Everyone else in the neighborhood was either in the same trouble or unwilling to make their lives harder still by helping.
“Dad?” the daughter said one day. “I hear the house creaking.”
Wind blew in from every wall. The man had tried to ignore it, but he could tell that the house was giving way. He started to cry, even in front of them all. He couldn’t help it. He wasn’t even a man. He knew he had no choice.
“Dad?” the son said. “Where are you going?”
“Are we going somewhere, dear?” his wife asked.
“Take… what you can,” the man said. “We’re going to live with my parents.”
They left the house just in time. Turning around in the snow, the four of them watched as the house collapsed. It happened in a great cracking rumble. Some neighbors poked their heads out of their windows to see what had happened. They wondered if the wood might be available to them.
When they reached his parents’ house, the man knocked on the door.
“Can we… stay with you… mom?”
The man’s mother gave him a big hug. He was much larger than her, but he seemed much smaller.
“Of course you can, dear. Let me fix you all something hot to eat.”