1. War: a Sheridan, Wyoming, EMT, gunsmith, vegetable gardener, log-home builder, cancer survivor, and mead-maker who deadlifts more than 500 pounds, has a powerfully agile and bibliographic brain, and could probably still start at D-II defensive tackle;
2. E: a northern-Twin Cities-suburbs cop who moonlights for the Metro Transit Police because his adolescent boys’ college won’t pay for itself, who once worked as a guard at Minnesota Correctional Facility Stillwater, who thinks deep thoughts but keeps everyone else from getting too serious about anything, and who knows things most people will never want or have to know;
3. Big Daddy: a northern-suburbs dad, high-school ceramics teacher, and coach — football (defensive line), hockey, track and field (shot and disc throwers) — who’s also a bicycle geek, music nerd, fishing addict, and, as nearly anyone who’s met him will tell you, a supreme raconteur;
4. Tom: a southern-burbs dentist and dad who’s done the Superior Trail 100, the Death Race, and a bunch of other insane endurance events, who’s unfailingly steady and kind (unless he drinks a quick handful of beers, in which case he gets pleasantly lippy), and whose family includes a pug elder, a middle-kid bulldog, and a brand new Jack Russell terrier;
5. G: an anxious Duluth college writing teacher (a lifer toward the bottom of the academic hierarchy) who’s got no idea how to leverage his newish Ed.D. in teaching and learning, spends unwise time trying to figure out what’s wrong with him and why, finds solace in music and bicycles and physical labor, and sometimes thinks he wishes he’d had the foresight to become a full-time firefighter who travels and reads as much as possible instead of whatever he feels like and is.
First guy walks up to the bar. Looks at the bartender and says …
Actually he says nothing. And there’s no bartender. The guys didn’t walk into a bar. In fact there is no bar. I’m sorry. There’s no joke after the setup; it’s just a very clever device I employed to introduce the disparate characteristics among me and four guys (can you guess which one I am?) I attended UMD with, stayed in touch with to varying degrees in the 15 years or so after graduation, and have been in consistent (sometimes constant) contact with by way of a never-ending group text-message that started in like 2011 or a little later.
I have been in bars with each of them in the past few years, and occasionally with more than one of them at a time, but I don’t know if we’ve all ever bellied up together, even in college. Were we all at the Reef on the night of Jim Malosky’s funeral? I don’t think Tom was there. Or maybe he was and E wasn’t? On some night we must have all shown up to the same party between 1989 and 1992, but I’m almost certain we never stood around a keg or lounged on lofted couches anywhere together. It makes sense. While we all existed in the broad UMD Athletics-based social scene, and there were huge overlaps in that scene’s Venn diagram, the scene also included countless, complex, constantly shifting niches and sub-niches influenced by living arrangements, non-Athletics friendships and acquaintances, majors and minors, course schedules, team and other campus-organization affiliation, on- and off-campus jobs, academic progress, romantic-relationship status, and various other circumstances. Even when Tom and E (and Top Dog) and I all played football and lived in 8C Village Apartments sophomore year, we had distinctly individual lives. Big Daddy and I became very tight as roommates a couple years later. We’re still tight. He and I are quite similar in some ways, and that’s part of why we appreciate and have affection for each other. But another part of those feelings — perhaps a more-important part — is our many and significant dissimilarities.
Big Daddy and I celebrate each other’s uniqueness and oddness and weirdness. That same thing is true, in varying degrees, of the whole five-guy never-ending-text group. At least it seems true to me. B.D. is the only guy I recall ever discussing it with out loud. Regardless of what those other guys think or feel, one of the things I value most about how our 30-year relationships have ebbed and flowed into their current state is what I experience as our mutual, sincere appreciation of each other for being exactly who we are. We just really like and respect each other. There’s no frienemies nonsense. No one talks smack behind the other guys’ backs. We’re not competing with each other. Conflicts of allegiance never arise. We all give each other a fair amount of shit, as good friends ought to do, but I’ve never felt an edge or ulterior motive or sense of disingenuiousness or passive animosity in any of it. That’s not always been true among groups of guys I’ve spent time with. I occasionally wonder if the relationships among Big Daddy, E, me, Tom, and War would be or feel different if we all lived in the same place and saw each other regularly and were part of the same geographic social scene. I’m easily the least pleasant of the five to hang out with, so maybe I’m the only one who wonders and worries about how proximity might alter our relationships.
With a very small handful of exceptions, my dwindling (in both number and closeness) friendships with Duluth men around my age feel increasingly fraught in the sense that I’m never sure about how much of my unguarded self I should (or want to) express. For both logical and illogical reasons, I’ve become socially cautious to the point of isolating myself in ways I didn’t used to. The more I ratchet down my sense of caution, the more awkward and unsure I feel in even mundane social interaction. I don’t mean to say I scurry around town wary and timid, senses piqued for danger around every corner. I mean that even though I aspire to rigorous personal integrity and sincerity, I very often default to superficial, performative politeness. I try to be sincere and warm, but at arm’s length. Either that or I overcompensate — especially around guys I admire and feel connections with and envy — and wind up trying way too hard, feeling embarrassed and regretful about the ungainly effort, and telling myself I’ve got new reasons to further remove myself from the social loop.
Some of all that neurosis is my own fault. Intentionally and unintentionally over the past 10 or 15 years, I’ve neglected and strained and broken some established and growing bonds. I’ve put revered peers on heavy blast, well aware of what the concentric social consequences would most likely be. I rarely, for a long list of stupid reasons, initiate interaction with guys I’d like to spend time with. Then I feel sad when I learn those guys have been to concerts or off on adventures or just hanging out together. Then I spin that sadness into confirmation that at some point I did or said something — maybe turned down one too many invitations when they were still coming, or was too dour or intense or weird when we actually did last hang out — that they agreed to cross me off their list of possible people to contact. I’ve also been ostracized, by guys who may or may not have been actual friends, for reasons gut and insight tell me are sad adult versions of high-school social hierarchies. Duluth is full of that cool-kids bullshit. There’s a version of it among the crunchy, liberal-progressive, silent-sports, mostly white, Duluthier-than-thou set that can get especially vicious. I’m sure I’ve also done some ostracizing from within that perspective.
And sometimes, even when nothing really goes wrong and no one’s being a jerk, real friendship just fades into warm acquaintance or all the way away.
It’s also true — and I just did not stop to think about the possibility of this as a younger man, before my direct Gen-X peers started to have kids — that it can be tough for folks who choose not to be parents to retain relationships with peers who do become moms and dads. Can be; doesn’t have to be. That’s been a lot tougher for my wife, Ms. LaCount, than it’s been for me. No one’s ever judged me (at least to my face) for not wanting to be a dad. She’s caught all kinds of hell — she’s been shunned, condescended to, chided, interrogated, vilified, pitied, willfully and ignorantly mischaracterized, and just flat-out badmouthed to her face and behind her back — for not wanting to be a mom. No one’s ever told me I need to get with the program and have a kid whether I want to or not. No dad has ever told me I’d just be easier to hang out with, or that I wouldn’t say some of the things I say, if I also were a dad. No dad has ever told me that I, as a non-dad, just can’t understand why it makes more sense for him to spend time with other dads instead of me. No dad or mom has ever assumed I just naturally want to hang out with all the dads and their kids while Ms. LaCount and the moms are off doing some fun, child-free thing together. No dad or mom has ever interpreted my request to ride bikes or ski or watch music or have beers with a dad — with just the dad, and without his kids or their mom — as evidence that I dislike his kids or children in general. Ms. LaCount has experienced all that, and when she’s had the courage and dignity to name and resist it she’s found out who her sincere friends are. (For the record: she and I love kids; we find great joy in the joy of our friends who wanted kids and have them; we have lovely, cherished relationships with kids created and adopted by people we adore; we admire the stamina and mindfulness of people who parent well. We’ve just never felt inclined or called to be parents. She’d be good at it. I wouldn’t. We’re happy with our family as it is. It’s true: the two of us, even without kids, comprise a legit family.)
The never-ending ex-jock text message, which I think was initiated by E, initially also included Ulf Dahlén (a physician and what some folks might call a “left-wing radical” in Madison, Wis.), Top Dog (a phy-ed teacher and coach in Madison), and Kevbo (a talented trucking-insurance agent, for a long time in White Bear Lake and now in Utah, who by the time he was 30 had made financial fortunes the rest of us can barely fathom). For reasons including being a bit more traditionally adult-like (in good ways) than the five of us generally present ourselves as being, they did not enjoy the dinging and buzzing and memes and smartassery of the interaction, and one by one they diplomatically asked to be dropped from group. We five acquiesced. We still love them. We speak no ill when we mention them. The remaining five of us aren’t all, like, close close — sharing our hopes and dreams and a pair of magical jeans that fit us all perfectly and get traded around in emotionally resonant ways. I don’t tell any of them, even the guys I’m closest to, everything. (I only attempt to express the deepest, weirdest stuff in my tortured brain in writing that gets published online, so I don’t have to look anyone in the eye while struggling to say it or risk having anyone directly question or contradict what I eventually decide to say. I can also cut, add, or modify words any time I want, although I usually don’t.) But some of us guys see each other fairly often and we occasionally open up to each other in subtle ways, and my sense from the messages we share is that we all care for each other without reservation. Our group and individual bonds are strong and tender. We would inconvenience ourselves to be there for each other.
If we showed up as a group somewhere we’d probably look fairly homogeneous on the surface: beefier-than-average white guys going grey and getting wrinkles and trying to stay in some sort of shape. Deeper down we share some characteristics and perspectives, but none of us is really all that much like the others. We had similar cultural, athletic, and generational formative experiences coming of age in 1980s Minnesota — attending public schools in Rochester, Faribault, West St. Paul, Blaine, and Duluth — but we were way different from each other before we met, and we diverge in some significant ways now. We disagree vigorously about some things. We’re also respectful and curious about each other’s perspectives when they come up. I never feel wary of expressing my true beliefs around any of them. None of us hammers our beliefs down each other’s throats, aggressively contradicts each other’s beliefs, tries to convince everyone else they should believe what we believe, stops thinking positively about anyone, or cuts contact with anyone because of what they believe. Not one of us has ever — and this is a pretty huge deal — been directly or indirectly told or shown by the rest of us that if we don’t start or stop believing or doing some certain thing we’ll be out of the group. If we ever do encounter a serious conflict based on something harmful or out-of-line one of us said or did, I’m confident we would handle it with directness and respect.
I can’t overstate how grateful I feel for that acceptance (which goes way beyond “tolerance”) and the self-assuredness and reciprocity — the significant desire to reciprocate — it fosters. I deeply grieve not having those same things in many Duluth social and professional relationships I wish would include them. I also don’t know how much to trust my hard-earned perspective about such matters. Maybe I’ve just behaved and treated people in ways that preclude the type of acceptance I wish I felt. Maybe acceptance is enveloping me all the time and I just don’t notice or appreciate it because my hunger for (or sense of entitlement to) validation is insatiable. Maybe I’m seeking acceptance in situations where it just won’t exist. Maybe I’m still desperately grasping at a dramatic adolescent desire for the entire world to simultaneously accept me as part of the group and acknowledge my beautiful uniqueness.
Oh snap. I think that’s it.
I think the internal conflict in that last full sentence is part of what I’m trying to make some sense of by typing out all these words. I want to be part of a group. I also want everyone else in the group to acknowledge and value my unique perspective. Among the guys I trade smartass text messages with, I get both of those things: a sense of deep, compassionate camaraderie and a sense that our bonds don’t depend on abiding by supposedly shared conventions other than caring for and simply but deeply acknowledging the individual human worth of each other. As long as I’m not acting like an asshole all the time, I can be exactly who I am. So can they. Part of what bonds us is that we support each other’s absolute uniqueness.
These next bits are uncomfortably honest enough, and they sound pathetic and whiny enough, that I’ve deleted and re-typed versions of them about 37 times:
I wish I had more opportunities to give and receive that type of nearly unconditional support — the type my UMD buddies and I give to and get from each other — among friends and colleagues. I’ve been through periods of feeling like I have many of those relationships in Duluth. I have very few of them now, and the ways and reasons for which I lost or abandoned them are part what keeps me wary of hoping for new ones. I miss knowing the real versions of flesh-and-blood people and having them know the authentic me. I’m tempted to say I miss a sense of reciprocal support among teaching colleagues, but in some ways I don’t know if I’ve ever had the full version of it I’ve longed for and felt entitled to. I had something like it with four fellow full-time St. Scholastica adjunct instructors when we shared Tower 4136, a former A/V closet converted into a 120-square-foot office that would have been miserable had we not regarded each other so highly and carefully. I’ve had UMD and St. Scholastica bosses provide very strong support. I’ve also had bosses threaten and punish me for challenging convention. Some of those challenges were immaturely reckless and unwise. I wish I’d have been more more mature and behaved much differently. Others were well-founded; they were evidence I had been deeply pondering teaching in self-examining ways more teachers ought to explore. All the challenges I got punished for should have been handled much differently by the people in charge.
It didn’t take much punishment or many threats for me to become very afraid of what might happen if I ever were to speak all-the-way frankly in professional contexts. Even now, with a credible perspective that comes from experience and doctoral inquiry, I only sort of share perspectives that contradict accepted orthodoxy. That’s especially true of perspectives that challenge compliance-based pedagogy and professorial primacy. I work and exist on campus with a deep sense fear that coexists with a constant sense of profound gratitude. Teaching at a college is an incredible privilege. Also: anyone who says colleges and universities are bastions of unfettered intellectual exploration and idea exchange either hasn’t spent much time in higher-ed environments or has incentives for misrepresenting the truth. Academic hierarchies are inherently conservative toward the culture that perpetuates them. Many of us bleeding-heart liberals and progressives and radicals in higher ed have no problem punishing students and other fellow human beings who fail to comply with conventions that prop up our professional, social, and cultural dominance. Most of us have truly decent, compassionate intentions. More than a few of us have huge blind spots that protect us from noticing how much we collude with ways of thinking we claim to oppose.
But now I’m way off track.
Look: I don’t feel maligned or mistreated in any context. I’m perpetually grateful for 97.54 percent of my life. I just feel lonesome and without a social or professional place to fit in. From moment to moment I’m certain most of those feelings are my fault because A. I’m a habitual, arrogant contrarian who gives most people few reasons to want me around; or B. there’s just a fundamental malfunction in how I perceive the world, and it will keep me from ever really developing comfortable, non-fraught connections with more than a few people.
Awkward openness like this essay is part of the problem. So is a tendency to come across as confrontational then expect the people I’ve confronted to celebrate my presence. Who wants to hang out with a dude who’s equally liable to not speak at all, to get flummoxed and tongue-tied by super-hard questions such as, “How are you?”, or to ramble on for like a melancholy hour or eight about how patriarchy and white primacy are the air we breathe or about all the things he wishes he’d done differently when he was younger? None of that is enjoyable. It’s downright depressing and off-putting. There’s no real way to respond to any of it that doesn’t start to feel like an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm (which I find excruciating to watch) based around a character who tries too hard to develop and apply mindfulness and self-awareness and compassion for fellow humans instead of being comfortable with having none of that stuff.
Abrupt transition: Since quitting the UMD footballing squad in 1991, I’ve gone through periods in which I desperately miss being on a team. It’s a weird thing to feel bereft about, because I’m generally not a joiner, and when I do volunteer for collaborative commitments I almost always drift away from or abruptly, awkwardly end them. I’m not sure what I think I’m missing when I think I’m missing being on a team. Even when I was closest to comfortable with conformity as a boy — from mid-August until mid-November, when I could mostly abstain from sanctimonious and self-destructive defiance and just do all the football stuff according to all the football rules — I mostly resented the assumption, whether it came from within the team or from folks outside it, that I congruously agreed and identified with all the other football boys. Most enraging and isolating was the notion that anyone who didn’t agree or identify with some aspect of what it meant to be on The Team was betraying his mates and should be forcibly corrected or scorned, sometimes overtly but often with deft subtlety, by its most dominant and compliant members.
I’ve felt the same things, in manifestations that change according to context, among teachers, bicycle nerds, men, liberals and progressives, white folks, Minnesotans, and pretty much any group I’m voluntarily or inherently or supposedly within: if you do or are this thing you’re supposed to be and think these ways, and if you defy those ways there will be consequences. I don’t enjoy feeling like I have to abide by supposedly agreed-upon perspectives and behaviors in order to be accepted by people who claim to care about me and want me to care about them. I’m enough of an adult to know following certain conventions is part of what social interaction is about. I’m enough of a naive, immature idealist to keep fighting against the inauthenticity I believe is required to play by those arbitrary, gatekeeping social-interaction rules. The story I’ve been telling myself more and more often is that I’d rather feel lonesome than be inauthentic. I can’t really define what is or isn’t “authentic.” Depending on my blood-sugar level, the weather, and a bunch of other factors that influence how I process stimuli, that story feels either admirably rigorous or stupidly, immaturely self-destructive. Either way, I’ve got a lot of alone time for thinking about it.
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