Billy Baker is a reporter for the Boston Globe. Billy Baker is married with younger children. Billy Baker realized one day that if he subtracted his work, wife and children from the crazy-quilt of his life, he had well, no life. Or at least no friends. Billy Baker wrote about that and started something. Sociologists, psychiatrists, and me perked up and jumped in. It seems that lots of men are lonely and those men die sooner than those who are not.
How did that happen, that all these men turned out to be lonely? Not paying attention to their lives, and seemingly just being men, is the answer. Men, and this cuts across many age groups, become very invested in the perception of what it means to excel at their job description of being a man. They work, they marry, they have children and they parent. Younger men pride themselves on parenting more and better than their fathers and grandfathers. That only complicates the problem. Yes they meet more menwho are involved fathers, but when the children get older they lose contact with those men because they’ve lost contact with the children’s activities that brought them together. Instead of just starting the adult process and its shedding of of “old” friends, their involved parenting only puts off the loss. Woman are different.
Take my wife. No that’s not the lead-in to the famous Henny Youngman line that ends with,”….please!” My wife whose age I will not disclosure but is at the front end of the boomer generation, has friends still that she made in elementary school. She made anothee group of friends she met who were like she, single parenting divorcees. She made friends in the workplace and counts some of them yet as long term friends. And so on. My reaction aside from awe? How does she have time for them all?!? But she does and that’s how she has kept them, by making friendships a priority. Early on she told our daughter never to replace her girlfriends with boyfriends and she listened and didn’t. She too has friendships that have transcended her life’s stages while still making new ones.
Not take me. I grew up on a dead end street in Brooklyn and was part of a tight knit group of kids. We spent most of our waking moments of youth together. We walked to elementary school together and we walked to high school together. Then we went to college. Not one of them am I even in touch with.
In college I joined a fraternity. In my pledge class I was part of a small group of guys that were so close we were called the Three Musketeers. They too are gone. As fate would have it, I found decades later the I lived within blocks of one of them in Boca Raton, Fl. With excitement I reached out to him. Thirty years had made a difference. He had a wife, children, business and his own circle. I was new to town; I was not invited into the circle. Even things like this example didn’t bring the relationship back: we had washed our underwear for prom too late to dry it so he, who had an apartment before we, put it in the stove. Instead of bake, he hit broil with predictable results. To me those are bonding occurrences. Not to him, I guess. My wife even taught his kids in school. That was a greater complication–class status.
Oh for sure I have friends, but they are not the friends I made when I ate their mother’s cookies, played touch football in the street, got into mischief and otherwise seamlessly became part of them and they of me. Life gets in the way of life. To start mid-life friendships is work. All that seamlessness enabled by the innocence of youth and the absence of life’s burdens is gone. Now there are questions and answers once blurted out that take rumination before deciding to verbalize. Now there are things wanting to be done, but other obligations that steal the time to do them. There are jealousies, and class conflicts, and sandwich generation problems, aging problems, and at times just lack of get-up-and-go-energy to get-up-and-do-things.
There is a dating strategy I learned after my divorce. I spent a frenetic period of time re-inventing myself. I went to a lot of bars and single events and such. Predictably I hated them. I have a soft voice and tend to speak in fully formed sentences in an adult way about adult things. I also have a razor-like wit. Both qualities to be appreciated have to be heard. Bars were not that place. Even today if my wife and I walk into a social function with more than a dozen people and she begins to talk to someone, she knows where to look for me–in a corner. Single events were a silly idea just like bars.
What was not a silly idea was to self-investigate, do things that I wanted to do after I figured out what they were, liked to do, and was comfortable doing. Women met at such things were far more likely to be compatible with me. Case in point, I met my wife at synagogue on a night I was giving a lecture. The lecture was about the Holocaust. It quoted a children’s book, a book, it turned out, from which she had produced a community play. The rest took care of itself.
Because this is a strategy that produces friendships first, it is one I have tried to use in finding some mid-life friends. There is however a problem. One is often looking for more than one friend…
I have been fortunate though to have found some men who could have grown up with me in that they are from the same kind of place, went to the same kind of schools, hung out with the same kinds of guys as I did–we have the same frames of reference socially and genetically. It isn’t perfect, but one thing learned as an adult is that nothing is and actually a little imperfection makes things more interesting.
“So what’s it all mean, Alfie?” Is all this thought and work worth the extra years of life it provides? Frankly, I’m not sure. One thing though I am sure of is that friends add to the quality of life and that’s a good thing.
I close with this. As parents were are exhorted not to let the television be our children’s baby-sitters. We as parents must be sure to provide ourselves, other friending opportunities and activities for our children. As aging adults we need to take care not to fall into the television trap we’re told to protect our children from. After all, don’t we deserve the same things we have provided for our children?
Bill Gralnick Blogger, Author
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