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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, November 02, 2019 1:00 am

Not all men are an island

Friendship maintenance requires effort

Jason Beer

Recently, a coworker, commenting on the many pictures I appeared in with my wife and friends at a recent wedding, asked whether the people were actually my friends or merely acquaintances via my wife.

After the initial sting, she said her question was one of social significance rather than a critique on my ability to gather buddies. She was wondering aloud whether all men-kind depend on their wives for friends. I just happened to be her example.

I certainly have friends I've made without my wife's influence, thank you very much. Let me see. There are the three roommates from when I taught in Los Angeles for a summer before my wife and I moved to Chicago. Although, it has been years since we've been together.

And two colleagues from my school in South Shore on 76th Street. We are friends. Although, one now lives east of Cleveland and the other, I believe, is still alive and possibly resides in the Pacific Northwest.

And there's the group of guys, two jobs ago and six years back. We're friends. Although, I've only spent significant time with one of them since then and him only a few times.

And then there's the colleague who asked the question. We're friends. Although, we've never spent time together outside of work. Well, technically, there was one time, but we were working, so that probably doesn't count.

That makes two without-the-help-of-my-wife friends that I've spent time with in the past year. Although, the one I saw while on a trip with my wife and he was with his wife and it was somewhat instigated by the impending birth of their child. That may not count, either. But the other meeting; that was all me. That makes one independent friend I've seen in the last calendar year. My colleague-friend might be right.

I'm only one person and somewhat hermetic at that, so I doubt whether this can be extrapolated for the common good. Apparently, there is a book called “Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships” by Geoffrey Greif, but I didn't have time to read it and the podcast about it was more than 50 minutes long. Who has time for that? I don't have time for that.

When I consider what my wife does to maintain her friendships, it gives me a brief but acute case of pleurisy. I'll hear her talking in the other room and come to find she's recording video messages to send to friends. She does this on an almost-daily basis. And then she's part of a group text called “Circus Ladies.” I can't be a part of something like that.

I did read an article in GQ by Lauren Larson where she mentions both Greif's book and an essay in Harper's Bazaar by Melanie Hamlett. The latter posits that emotionally stunted straight men have been stranded on an island because of their inability to develop meaningful male-to-male friendships, at times to the detriment of their female partners. That their partners are now bearing the brunt of being not only “the one” but often “the only one.”

“Do you feel that I am an emotionally stunted straight-man living on an island to your physical and emotional detriment, honey?” I ask my wife. She considers it. “You are not emotionally stunted,” she says, leaving the other parts hanging. “But I do feel you enjoy being on an island.”

Yet, how much do people need to say? How often do we need to see one another? Henry David Thoreau argued that we should only get together when we have something new and of value to offer. That “less frequency would suffice for all important and hearty communications.”

Which brings me back to the original topic: my friends. Whether with help from my wife or if meetings are few and far between, these people are significant. They share a desire for knowledge and beauty. They are concerned less with doing and more with being. They show concern for others. They know they can be wrong. These friendships lack the “toxic masculinity” that Hamlett decries.

In the end, my wife doesn't owe me anything more than I can do for myself. My island need not be isolated. I'd happily live on Manhattan.

Jason Beer teaches English at Homestead High School.