A recent Economist article suggests that American men come up short when it comes to friends, guy friends specifically. American heroes ride solo. Think Gary Cooper in High Noon, Jack Reacher, Spider Man, The Hulk, or Cleatus, the Fox Sports animatronic figure with laser eyeballs. Real men are quiet, stoic, independent, shoot straight, take pride in six-pack abs and are not given to joining break-out groups or writing thank-you notes. In the USA the rock-jawed cowboy rides into town on his cayuse, defeats a phalanx of bad hombres single-handed, gets the girl, and then skedaddles. He doesn’t stay, marry the school marm, join a barber shop quartet and raise sheep. Sometimes the cowboy has a sidekick, who provides snappy one-liners and tells him that Black Bart has just brung his gang of bad asses into town. But the cowboy doesn’t confess to the sidekick his long-suppressed desire to ride side-saddle.
In addition, the American guy is tough. My mother and father (the army general) decided I needed to butch up when I was eleven. They enrolled me in a boxing club on the military base. On the first day it became known that I was an officer’s kid. Thereafter my nose was punched more often than the Lobby button on an elevator. In my final bout I had to wear a clumpy Everlast groin protector that kept slipping off my waist and sliding down my leg. I held up the protector with my left hand and circled to the right, my business hand waving threateningly in front of me, a one-clawed crab. On the whole, I would have preferred my nose were safe in a book at the post library.
The Economist article lays the skinny male friendship situation on isolation, caused by, among other things, an American man’s dedication to work, playing Grand Theft Auto alone, or driving twelve-year-olds to dance rehearsal or Little League practice. He should be sharing a beer with a pal, exploring his lifelong aversion to spinach and a fear of tight underwear. But even with a friend at hand, glass of suds in his mitt, the cowboy thing (requiring he be restrained, independent and competitive) makes an American guy’s expression of feelings challenging. He is reduced to singing My Way in the shower.
Male groups can provide opportunities for practicing exchange of innermost stirrings in a low-risk environment. There are seemingly bonded, mostly male groups like Marvel’s Avengers, the Fantastic Four, and the Proud Boys, but they are not in it to share feelings. They are about showing off their super-powers, busting mega-criminals, and in the case of the last group, overthrowing governments. Sports provide a viable option. Threatening a Titleist golf ball with his three-wood on the first tee, a fellow can ask his mates, “So, what do you guys think about Tom Brady retiring? I kinda feel he should have stuck it out another year.” This is a start. By the eighteenth hole, the foursome could be exploring football as a metaphor for corporate life, where, like football, grizzled old pros hang up their briefcases, making way for younger dudes who understand cryptocurrency, know where to find the mute button on a Zoom screen, and sport body ink.
The sweet spot for male groups, particularly for men who can read the sports page without moving their lips, is a men’s book club. The beauty of a book club is that there is a common topic providing a base from which you can safely veer into the personal. My club gives a nominal thirty minutes to chew over the book before launching into politics, race, and the fate of mankind, lubricated by a bottle of red, a bottle of white, and snacks, peanut M&Ms preferred. It should be noted that our last book title was – ta-da – Strong Men: Mussolini to the Present. Come on, what did you expect?
Friends can provide counsel. Think of King David in the Bible. He was a married man, his Goliath-slaying days in the rearview mirror, when he checked out Bathsheba and got randy as she displayed her comely wares on a nearby rooftop. Too bad he didn’t have a pal to counsel him and say “Whoa, big guy.” Things might have gone better for all concerned, particularly for Uriah the Hittite, David’s general and Bathsheba’s hubby. King David sent Uriah into battle figuring he would buy the farm, freeing King David to get cozy with her. A friend would have counseled David to lose the all-powerful thing, calm his body, and do a solid for Uriah, avoiding a blemish on an otherwise sterling record, as Old Testament kings go. That is what pals are for.
There is no one way to free men of their emotional shackles and man-share. But a guy must muster up the courage to take a first step. Men, you possibly have male friends who will admit having a library card. Call them, start a book club. Or get fearless; take a deep breath, invite a pal to lunch. Today. Now.