When I was a rower in college, many Saturdays during the winter we would meet in the cemetery on the edge of campus, set on a particularly long and steep hill. The road up twisted and turned, flattening out in a false peak, only to reveal its steepest section just before reaching the top.
Our coach Will devised a system in which each team was composed of an equal number of strong and weak oarsmen on the hill. He split up each team into three separate race squads, pitting oarsmen of similar hill climbing ability against one another. He would sit at the top of the hill on the back of his pick-up truck with a clipboard in his hand, keeping score. We generally ran 10 hills, taking about an hour and depleting whatever resources were left from the week of training.
On one Saturday, I had a memorable exchange with a younger teammate. I knew Jon had been out late the night before, but I still expected him to excel at the hills since he was the best runner on the team, often beating me at the long runs that were my specialty. We battled out the first couple of hills, snorting and swearing upon reaching the top. Then I noticed that he would stay with me for one hill and slow down on the next one. As the captain of the team, I was trying to reinforce the coach’s demand for consistency of effort and it started to gall me that Jon appeared to be dogging it. I was busting my ass on each repetition and he should be too. On the next hill I finished first. As I came down I saw him bringing up the rear of our group.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I barked in his face, pushing him into the snowbank as he tried to complete the hill.
He came up swinging, landing a couple of crisp shots to my jaw, before our teammates separated us.
That was almost 30 years ago and Jon and I are still close friends.
Fast forward to 2012 and the attack on masculinity continues to astound me.
First it was men are all Charlie Sheen degenerates. Then it was men, especially young ones, are all slackers. And then of course we were pronounced, as a gender in our entirety, DOA (End, Over, whatever you want to call it).
Now comes yet another problem with being a man. Not just a certain kind of man, a certain geography or personality. No, just having balls means this problem is ruining your life. By definition. Like being the Charlie Sheen-Slacker-Non-Entity that the preceded this stubborn little issue.
According to The New York Times, that cultural beacon of all things true and right, us guys are so emotionally stunted that when we have a fight with each other. Rather than talk about it we walk away. It could be a lifelong friend, but we just don’t have the toolbox to sit down and work it out (the sound you hear right now is me puking just for your information). And this in turn is causing there to be an epidemic of friendless men, apparently.
“This culture celebrates female BFFs (Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. Stella and Gwyneth. Oprah and Gayle), but where are the HuffPo slide shows for their male counterparts?” asks BEN SCHRANK in his just published NYT piece Can’t Guys Just Learn to Fight for a Friendship?
The source of the missing male bond is our inability to get to the bottom of our disagreements. Mr. Schrank takes one life long friendship of his lost over a silly fight and globalizes it into a vast global gender epidemic of manhood gone deeply awry (and the NYT publishes it as fact):
“Men no longer know how to fight. Don’t get me wrong — we know how to confront strangers when they cut in line at the butcher’s or block the door on the subway. What we don’t know how to do is have the kind of unpleasant talks that articulate feelings to real friends when those friends ignore our wives at a dinner, or don’t think to call us when we are fired. Instead, we either shrug off the slight or end the friendship.”
The basis for this claim beyond his own lost bud? Ben’s friend Jeremy, an anthropology professor and a cabinetmaker. And a reading of the literature on our current President:
“This inability is not just limited to New York men of a certain age. Our current president seems to be known for not being intimate with anyone except his wife and children. In Bob Woodward’s new book, “The Price of Politics,” we learn that behind the scenes, Joe Biden gets the vital deals done. He knows that he must have the awkward talks it takes to keep our government going. But the guys in front can’t because of their precious sovereignty.”
Can I just say, in all seriousness, WTF? Really?
My whole view of manhood was born out of the depth of friendship, through thick and thin. For me it started with college athletics as a rower, but it continued after college in the business world, and then through a long list of god awful situations I found myself in where I relied upon male friends to listen to me, fight with me (damn right), tell me what they thought I should do, and love me unconditionally in a particularly gritty male kind of way (not that it’s the only kind of male love in the world it’s just the kind that works for me).
I don’t know what planet Mr. Schrank is living on, nor the New York Times, but I’ve been involved in starting a whole bunch of companies during which fights were a daily occurrence that was part of the process of improvement. I’ve been spending a lot of time in church basements for fifteen years now with guys that beat the living shit out of each other in a desperate attempt to get and stay sober. In short, if you are my friend I not only will go “in the back alley” to protect you if some other jerk tries to take you down. I will get right up in your grill and fight you to protect you from yourself and protect our friendship.
In my case I stumbled across a word for my general mode of being with my guy friends, teammates and business partners—assaholism—while reading the famous biography of Steve Jobs. What that means is brutal honesty in a confrontational manner pretty much all the time in an attempt to improve. Far from not fighting in the context of my male interactions, fighting is the very stuff of which my most precious relationships have been erected and my proudest moments of success as a man built up over pools of blood left on the floor in the pursuit of a greater good.
Like so many other gender issues making flat unqualified statements about one gender or the other is insane given the diversity of human beings and just as harmful as making flat statements based on race, ethnicity or sexual preference.
The fact that male BFFL don’t show up in the media, like they do for women, is purely a manifestation of the limited (and wildly inaccurate) portrait of masculinity dishes out by the mainstream media. Men being emotionally bonded doesn’t fit the moron-slacker image that we have been cast into.
From what I see in my limited view of the world, male friendships are alive and well with men navigating fights among themselves without stomping off never to speak again.
But amongst my friends PERHAPS there is a difference in language. A woman might tell me, “You hurt my feelings when you did X.”
My male friends would rather slit their own throat than say those words. Not because their feelings weren’t hurt but that is beside the point. They’d say, “hey dickhead, you were dead wrong when you did X.” The idea that then would then opt out of the friendship is ludicrous. But the words might indeed get heated over who was in the right whether in words that were said or disloyal deeds done.
Up on the top of the hill, sitting on the back of his pick-up truck, our coach Will smiled. He told me later about the Olympic gold medal crew that reached the dock after their victory and broke out in a brawl. The process of developing underlying trust as a team involved spilling your guts along the way, even showing raw emotion. He had made clear from the very beginning that this was about rowing, but it was really about a lot more. It was about growing up and learning the hard way how to avoid making excuses. He liked to say that he was really an educator and an artist who happened to choose boats and oars and men as his medium.
The measure of success was how well our crew rowed. But he firmly believed that excellence on the water had less to do with technique and strength and more to do with the development of the soul. We worked hard not so much to condition our bodies, though that was a necessary prerequisite, but to condition our minds. The payoff was that this development of the mind could be applied to any situation in life later on, whether on the water or off. To his way of thinking, the fight on the hill was a sign of progress—a sign of growing faith in one another.
image: my son and nephew playing a brutal game of four square which often results in … fights.