I hung out with only one kid during my elementary school years. We were best friends in the 10-year-old sense; playing with G.I. Joe figures, climbing trees, watching music videos on MTV to imitate Duran Duran and sing along with Def Leppard.
Not to dismiss young friendships but like young love, they usually die of natural causes; new interests, new schools, new addresses.
In 5th or 6th grade, my best friend saw his parents divorce.
He went to live with his mom in Northeast Philly, about 25 minutes away from me, from our school, from the background scenery of our friendship.
Sure, my friend was still close enough to see every now and again, when our mothers would get together for lunch or if we’d agitate to get one mom to make the drive for a drop off and the other to sign up the reverse trip, but our daily pattern of play was interrupted and our friendship suffered immediately. It was no fault of either of ours, we were just boys, but from that moment on we drifted apart. By high school a few years later, I rarely ever saw or thought of my first best friend. Years later, I declined an invitation to his wedding. That was it, done and dusted. I learned then that divorce doesn’t just tear apart families.
I arrived at my all-boy preparatory high school a chubby, awkward outcast. This other freshman was similarly stunted socially. We hung out together despite not really having anything in common, aside from not having anything in common with anyone else. Sometimes that’s enough to bond two kids, for a little while at least.
It wasn’t enough in our case. He grew to be more of a villain than I could stand, mischievous while I derived pleasure from being nice to others. We drifted apart before graduation. I’ve not thought about him until I started writing the above paragraph.
The absolute absence of friends in my life was a badge of honor I wore on my XXXL sleeves for much of my young adult life. If I were to be wired to a lie detector though, I’d have been forced to admit that it would have been nice to have a friend standing there beside me at the rock show that night, seated in the next chair over in the darkness of the art house theater for that Saturday matinee, and cheering with me at the stadium during all those exciting home games.
I didn’t care about being alone then but in retrospect, I’d have enjoyed having a friend or two with whom I could have shared all that music, all those films, all those last season playoff pushes. Instead, I did everything by myself. Turns out, solo reminiscing isn’t as joyous as catching up with old buddies.
Making friends as an adult isn’t the easiest thing in the world, especially when you don’t drink and no longer care about the NFL or play fantasy football. One of the stereotypical adult male rituals is meeting the fellas out for a few beers to watch the games on autumn weekends. But that’s not my scene, so those texts never arrive.
Without a shared backstory from youth, striking up meaningful warm platonic, loving relationships with hilarious, generous, sympathetic men in adulthood is damn near impossible.
Thankfully, it has proved only ‘near’ impossible for me.
I have my wife of 15+ years and our two kids in my life, and that’s been enough for me. Or so I thought. And so I said defiantly.
It’s not enough.
As Mark Greene reports in his stunning essay “Why Do We Murder The Beautiful Friendships of Boys”, the evaporation of friendships as men age from boyhood to adulthood is “a catastrophic loss; a loss we somehow assume men will simply adjust to. They do not. Millions of men are experiencing a sense of deep loss that haunts them even though they are engaged in fully realized romantic relationships, marriages and families.”
Over time though, I too began to feel this loss. Even while surrounded by a loving family, I felt alone. I began to miss the male adult friendships I never truly got to experience. That’s a loss times two.
My story is a positive one though, one I wish many men the good fortunate of having for themselves someday.
Around 5 years ago, I found my tribe online in a private dad bloggers Facebook group. We chat, we poke fun, and we share meaningful words of affirmation whenever a member of the community opens up about a struggle, self-doubt or a weakness. It is a beautiful thing to witness men doing that with and for each other.
Many of those dads reunite each year in some great American city at the annual Dad 2.0 Summit. We hug, we reminisce, and we say, “I love you, man” a lot. I then look for additional opportunities to fly around the country throughout the year, as schedules and money and family commitments permit, to bring those friendships formed online further into the real, physical world of concerts, movies and live sports.
Thankfully, this community of committed dads, many of whom are writers, podcasters and vloggers — an absurdly creative bunch — truly tastes great and is less filling, and has tapped the keg on many new friendships built not on a shared childhood story but on a foundation of modern fatherhood.
As commonalities go, the love of being a dad is damn hard to beat.
These are solid guys, vulnerable guys, guys who spend hours mining their emotions to creatively communicate what fatherhood does and/or should mean to them. I consider many of these men true friends, guys who I know would come to my aid online AND in real life if I ever needed the help. I would reciprocate in a heartbeat.
So this is what friendship feels like? I like it a lot. I need it even more.
The only complication are those physical distances between me and my new pals. If I thought a buddy moving 13 miles down the road was a roadblock to friendship 30 years ago, how do I keep friendship alive with guys in Detroit, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Tampa while I’m in Philly?
The answer is American Airlines, mostly. I’m flying into adult male friendships as often as I can.
While my dad friends and I are connected on social media, literally having each other in the palms of our hands every day, friendships on screens aren’t as strong, interesting or satisfying as putting your arm around each other, hearing a LOL or IRL (in real life), and sharing actual experiences together.
My improved mental health thanks to cementing these new adult friendships in the flesh is well worth the money spent and the frequent flier miles used.
As a society, we actively try to kill male friendship in our young people and as we guys grow up, we often have difficultly sharing our affection for each other. It becomes easy then to retreat into our phones and even if we find some connection online or on social media, the overwhelming feeling of loneliness is a tough opponent to beat without a roaring crowd at your back.
It’s that crowd, our friends, that can stave off the depressive thoughts that are too common in this modern, well-connected but ultimately isolated world.
Even though we may be surrounded by loved ones, kids and spouses, and chat and tweet with buddies whose little faces pop up on our phone 24/7, it is imperative, for me at least, to hug my friends, to see their smiles light up a room in person, and to tell them face to face that I love them and I need them.
I’d be willing to bet that you need and would love that too.
*Now in over 20 cities all over the country, including a Philly chapter that I helped launch a few years ago, the City Dads Groups are where new adult male friendships are being built every day on a sturdy foundation of fatherhood.