I finally had a triumvirate of men to hang out with for a relaxed evening. Tuesday night Jason and Lennis joined me later in the evening after their respective children had been put to bed--Jason (2 kids), Lennis (4). I'm frustrated that it took me over two years to attempt a gathering like this. I suppose I've needed this time to grieve the loss of my deep connections in Oklahoma City. That Jewish dictum that I've thought of so often has been agonizingly fulfilled, never leave any place easily.
I've not just had one or two good, close brothers over the years; I've had several. And this richness has been a surprise to me. It wasn't until a few years after college that I think I even began to conceive what it means to have or be a good friend. Everyone else seemed to have a tight group. I was the late bloomer both academically and socially. I didn't date. Girls freaked me out and I was intimidated easily by the camaraderie other guys could share that I didn't have.
Josh Bottomly was an exception. We had a deep and young connection. We were thirteen at summer camp. Put together by the camp director, Kay Zahasky. She had just met me the year previously, but she had known Josh and his family for several years. It was her hunch to put us in the same room. I had the trundle bed that pulled out from underneath hiss bed. We talked way into the night. It is interesting--even a little strange--that we were talking about God so eagerly, sincerely, and so intensely. We prayed together as we fell asleep. I remember Josh whispering Isaiah 30:15 to me in the dark, "In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength...." Philippians 1:6, "He who has begun a good work in you will complete it." I returned to camp from Illinois and Josh from Colorado for several summers. He became my best friend during that time. And that had its own awkwardness. How can the friend who you feel closest to be so far away? So, now with Josh in Oklahoma and me here in Michigan, it is not so new--to be away. There are other things that I'd like to tell about my friendship with him when we were in high school, but I feel hesitant to make much of it in writing for fear that I'd make it seem less than it was, that I'd make it mundane or silly or worse, that I'd sentimentalize it.
I offer these thoughts about Josh for two reasons: to celebrate him and to offer this friendship as a question.
Later when I moved to Oklahoma, Josh was the one who convinced me to go into teaching. I took a job, yes a full time position, for a measly $18,500 a year mostly because it meant I got to work at the same school with him. Later, I introduced him to the school where he now works. I was teaching grade six Language Arts and he grade seven. Casady has a chapel service daily and that meant that more often than not he and I would walk around the small lake in the center of the school grounds from the Middle Division building to the chapel.
Josh was up here in Holland for two nights a few weeks ago to visit some college campuses since he is a college placement counselor now. I rode with him one of these days and in the car we had plenty of good time to reconnect and reinvigorate the several conversations we have been carrying on over the years. Having him around made me realize what an empty space there is in my life, how good it is to have substantial, meaningful and regular conversations with other men. This is what finally motivated me to get Jason and Lennis together this past Tuesday night.
The question then is: why is it so hard for us to find space in our lives to share with each other? I just got back from having dinner with my two interns, Sam and Andy, and this same question came out of my mouth: when we are created to love and receive love, why is it so hard for us to actually be together? Tuesday night, Jason and Lennis were asking this question too. We all agreed that women are better at this than men. Women have "get togethers," a tea or a lunch or a prayer meeting. Men golf together. They watch "the game" together. There is the iconic poker night, a room filled with cigar smoke, men in their undershirts leaning over a table scattered with poker chips, cards and high balls of bourbon and ice. And there is, of course, the belly up to the bar at the neighborhood "liars club," as my grandfather used to call them. Here the boys are hitting the booze hard, spilling their guts to the bartender. Is there is a more iconic image of masculine loneliness, than the local bar as the social club, even a substitute for the church? But I'm not a sports fan. It is too expensive to gamble and drink liquor out on the town, and my father discouraged me from playing golf precisely because in his profession (Law) he'd seen how the game had become an escape for colleagues who had forfeited their obligations to their families.
Why does it have to be an either/or? Workaholism, the bar, the greens, 18 holes and poker nights versus the domesticated family man? I find myself romanticizing European cultures, especially those closer to the Mediteranean. France has a 30 hour work week and paid vacation as a standard. One teacher I used to work with had taught in Paris. She told me that at lunch all the children went home and the teachers were served a meal on real dishes with nice flatware. Best of all, they were served wine--by the school. In Spain they don't start dinner until late late. 10 PM is common; and then they sit at the table for a couple hours, no rush, no haste. When I studied in England for a summer, I was enamored with the English pub and the social convention of tea time. The pub was remarkable not because of the quality of beer but because it was neither a seedy, roadhouse like establishment where you can imagine a fight breaking out at any minute, nor was the pub a hopping club, a place to see and be seen. The pubs were family friendly establishments, a kind of corner community center.
Tea time was at 10:30AM, if memory serves me, no matter what you are doing. Everyone stops and takes a break. It doesn't have to be tea. Some take coffee or a soda, but there is always a little snack and a chat. In America smoking is the only equivalent we have to this kind of regular pause in the middle of the day. There is an unspoken connection between smokers, a kind of misery loves company bond even between strangers when they bum a cigarette of of each other or ask for a light or stand out in the cold just to get a puff.
There is a good movie called Smoke with Harvey Keitel and William Hurt that is about this very interesting section of our culture. Josh and I ironically discover this movie together. Harvey Keitel's character runs a corner smoke shop and William Hurt is an author who lives upstairs and is a regular customer of the store. Keitel invites William Hurt upstairs to see his life's work, several photo albums filled with pictures of the same street scene. Every morning Keitel sets up a tripod and camera and takes a picture across the intersection at exactly 8AM. William Hurt is flipping through the pages of pictures quickly and Keitel slows him down. Wait, wait, you are going to miss it.
We rush through each day, and we are not able to get perspective and see what is right in front of us. Smoking is a metaphor for this same idea; smokers stop and perhaps this pause allows them to see the day better, perhaps it is not so much about the tobacco as it is the opportunity to gain perspective.
My daily walks with around the lake at Casady served this purpose. It was good to pause. It was better to share that with someone.