"No I can't help myself, no I can't help myself, no, no, no
Caught up in the rhythm of it..."
–Justin Timberlake, Say Something
The speaker wanted us to understand vulnerability. He started by having us stand up and introduce ourselves to someone we didn't know. Then he had us share what we did professionally. Then he had us share something personal that scared us.
The young man I met in this context told me he was scared about being a good father (he was definitely south of 30). He had a newborn at home and was already overwhelmed by the big picture. I told him I empathized; been there, done that, and still doing that.
I told him that for me, not having close friends in my later years was my fear -- good guy friends. The Mama (what I lovingly call my wife) is and will always be my best friend, but would my best male friends of youth and young adulthood still be around when I was older? I do know as long as we're living we'll invest in the friendships we've had for decades, but outside of that, there are still more women than men with more than a handful of lifelong friends and supportive networks. My friends and I are part of the growing exception to the great American (white) male rule of being tough, keeping women and minorities down and out, and in the end, drinking alone in a roomful of violent, broken Y chromosomes.
The vulnerability exercise got me thinking about being a balanced man today, one who's comfortable nurturing healthy friendships with both men and women and not afraid to say I love you without joking about bromance or being called gay (even my best friends and I have been guilty of this over the years). Today, too many American men are dying lonely and alone, without close friends, and the suicide rate is again climbing for men over 50 years old.
Recently while traveling, the choice of staying absorbed in my phone apps or starting a conversation came down to the salad in front of me. A younger black man was eating what looked like a chicken caesar, and I was pretty damn hungry. I only had about 45 minutes to eat before my flight.
"How's the salad?" I asked him. We both sat at a long, high-boy table where many individual travelers sat. The airport restaurant we were in was pretty packed and the only quick seats were the high-boy openings.
The guy eating the salad smiled. "It's pretty good. Especially when you're hungry."
"Excellent," I said. "I'm hungry and really need to skip the French fries this time."
He laughed and said, "I hear you."
I ordered the salad and a beer. We kept talking and then another younger black man next to the one I first talked with joined our conversation, and then a younger white man next to me started talking with us. We started talking about music, something all four of us got jazzed about.
"Yeah, I'm a drummer," the guy across from me said. "Used to play for church bands, but dang it's gotten competitive."
I held up my hands and said, "I'm only a hobbyist drummer; no wagering."
They all laughed. The other two guys said they played guitar, and then the white guy next to me shared a story of rocking out in his daughter's outdoor princess castle fort because his wife was tired of him playing in the house. Our conversation was effortless, as if we'd been friends for years. We talked more about our families, music, beer and then the conversation veered to strange travel stories.
And then it was time for me to head home. I knew I could've kept talking to them all, and if we lived closer to one another, we might even hang out once in a while. It didn't seem like old-school patriarchy kept these guys down at all, although a 45-minute conversation does not a best friend make. I just knew in my heart that many good men, like these men, just as much as other good women, straight or gay and of any background, all long for the regular rhythm of social connection and loving friendships. Friendships that give us the courage to accept the vulnerability of empathy and humane co-existence.
That's why we have to make it okay for our boys to love each other as friends and to give each other the emotional support they need throughout childhood, adolescence and adulthood, without any social stigma or hateful backlash. I believe these healthier male relationships will help break down toxic patriarchy and solve a lot of social ills in America. Definitely music to my ears.