Au Revoir Simone--"The Boys Of Summer" (mp3)
This past weekend, I smoked meat, drank beer, sweated until my armpits stank, turned up music too loud, swore plenty, foraged for fire wood and then threw unnecessary logs on the fire, stayed up too late, brushed off ticks, made a lot of either disparaging or self-deprecating remarks, shoveled cake in my mouth after midnight, made half-hearted efforts to clean things up. And, most of all, I played games.
Yep. You guessed it. Men together.
It was the occasion of my friend's 40th birthday, a surprise gathering in the mountains of West Virginia, in Fayetteville, centerpiece of the New River Gorge and self-proclaimed "Coolest Small Town In America." His brother-in-law rented a vacation home for 4 days and we all chipped in and snuck in and pulled off the surprise and made quite a weekend of it. There were seven of us.
My wife went on a "girl trip" last summer, but she didn't really like it, and, or at least didn't like it for very long. Since she's never said that much about it (except when she called all the time while she was there), I can't really say why she didn't connect with it. The subject did come up on Saturday, when a bunch of us were leaning against the deck railing in the backyard, either smoking or watching meat smoke.
"What do women when they go on trips like this?" somebody asked.
"Talk," someone else responded. "They sit around and talk."
It wasn't said as a put-down. It was said very matter-of-factly. I'd guess it's probably true, but I'm not hanging my hat on it, having never been on such a trip, though I have been on a "couples" trip or two, and they have tended in that direction. Let's just say that the crowd in West Virginia didn't have the "personal statement of Christian faith" discussion that we had down in Charleston last summer. When we weren't shopping or eating in that city, we were back in the apartment chatting.
Men, on the other hand, play games and sports and activities. Before I arrived, they had spent the day whitewater rafting. In the backyard, a choice between Ladder Ball and Cornhole, games played at all times of the morning and day and at night until it was too dark to see. During the late evenings, there was poker for the foolish. One day, the brave went zip-lining, and the rest of us journeyed into the gnat-infested woods to play Frisbee golf.
But everything, and I mean everything, was a competition, not only in this crowd, but in every all-male gathering. The one night we went out to dinner, as soon as we sat down, someone instituted a rule, I can't remember the name of it (and not because I lost!), where if you were caught holding your beer with your primary hand, you had to chug the drink. Luckily, I have slight ambidexiterity from my father, and drink with my right hand even though I'm left-handed.
Even music, as I have mentioned in these pages before, is a matter of one-upsmanship. While we didn't engage in the legendary "Ipod Wars," listening to music with a bunch of guys most certainly does not involve putting Sarah McLachlan on in the background and being done with it. Instead, it's about getting your turn with your Ipod playing your songs that show who you are and why your songs are perfect for the moment. And taking the heat if it doesn't turn out. I'm proud to say that I introduced the concept of women who make music to this Ipod crowd. With limited success.
I celebrate this friendly competitiveness. It certainly made the weekend more fun, but it also speaks to something larger. Men have got to have at least a little something at stake (their egos, if nothing else) in order to fully engage in life. They have got to be able to prove to themselves that they can face their fears or get a little better at something new than they were the first time they did it. Or they need to know that there is another crack at it, whatever it is, waiting out there. They need the nod of approval from their compadres, the high five, even if it's only for one decent throw, shot, toss, save, or hand in a long, losing effort.
Like Beowulf and his thanes in the mead hall "forgetting the woes of the world," modern men still lose themselves in activities and games, beers and meals. They communicate with bottles clunked together, shared songs, the communal lure of the fire, and words that focus mainly just on what they are doing right then. Otherwise, they'd have to sit around and actually talk to each other.