Earlier this month, I published an article I did not initially want to write, admitting that I had let many of my close friendships slip away as I structured myself into a work-family-work cycle that had left me feeling like a middle-aged loser starved for my guys.
It has been a wild ride since then, but one that only reinforced the importance of this unasked-for assignment: It forced me to take a good long look in the mirror. And based on hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of touching e-mails and social media messages, it was having the same effect on many of the men who were reading it.
As mapped out in my article, disconnecting from friends is incredibly bad for your long-term health. Shockingly bad. Like “this reporter sounds like he’s laying it on thick” bad. I was not. Study after study after study all tell you the same thing.
That simple reality struck a chord with a surprising number of readers. Not just Bostonians. Men around the world. Seriously. Since the story was published on BostonGlobe.com on March 9, I’ve been fielding constant requests to appear on local and national radio shows to talk about this issue, including two different stations in the Canadian province of Alberta, where the story was strangely popular. I’ve also been absolutely flooded with e-mails from men in Australia, where the story was straight viral because the Internet is a strange place. I received many versions of the same message: “Just sent your article to my mates and we’re getting the boys back together ASAP.”
In my mind, Australia and the Canadian Rockies are classic tough-guy locales, where men do not talk about their feelings. And yet here we were. Many Australians pointed to something called “Men’s Shed,” a movement that has been sweeping that country for 10 years and is exactly what it sounds like: just some sheds for men to gather and be guys. (I also heard from a man in Hawaii who just opened the first Men’s Shed in the States.) On top of the radio spots, there were endless e-mails with messages containing variations of “It’s like you just crawled into my brain because I feel the exact way and was kind of afraid to admit it.” Or, simply: “This hit way too close to home.”
Response from men in my age demographic – men just hitting middle age – was huge, but there was a similarly huge response from those on the tail end of middle age. Some offered tips on what had worked for them. Many others wrote, “I wish I’d read this 20 years ago.” My own aunt pulled me aside to say she was worried about her husband, who had lost all of the other “sports dads” when his kids had grown. My mom had a frank conversation with my dad about getting out more.
There were plenty of offers from strangers to hang out. There were invitations to church, and book clubs, and beers. I had many messages from members of a group called F3 – Fitness, Fellowship and Faith – that was formed in North Carolina to recognize and solve this very problem of guys needing guys and is now spreading nationally.
I even heard from a lot of women, saying, “Hey, we’re going through this, too.” I recognize that, but I wrote about guys because: 1) I’m a guy. Write what you know. 2) Experts say we’re much worse at all this. And 3) we almost never talk about this stuff, and we need to.
There were some very sad e-mails – from widowers, from men who were living in a place where they did not know anyone, from people in other truly awful situations that I will not betray. And within those e-mails, there was the unspoken reminder that I need to appreciate that my own situation is kinda great. I recognize that. But I also recognize where I’m failing as a friend.
The first thing I did after the story was published was to e-mail Mark and Rory, my best friends from high school, whom I described in the article.
“Forgot to mention that I wrote a story about how you guys are lousy friends and I miss you,” I wrote.
Mark replied with: “Who is this?”
But it was Rory’s reply that made it real.
“Awesome story,” he wrote. “I definitely feel like a loser in this regard.”
And then he dropped the kicker. He was living in Vienna. As in Austria.
Yes, one of my best friends in this world had just packed up and moved to Europe. And I did not even know.
“Something has gone terribly wrong here,” I wrote back.
“Terribly wrong,” he replied. “We gotta right this ship before it sinks.”
Yes, we do. And that’s why these past weeks were also the beginning of one of the most inspiring wake-up calls I’ve experienced. I was making vows and making plans and reconnecting with old friends – many of whom reached out after reading the article. These, experts will tell you, are the exact steps you need to take to get friendships back on track, and they have immediate positive effects on your health.
My issue is not making new friends. It’s caring for the relationships I already have. I have many great friends from school and sports and work and wherever. All I did was raise my hand and kinda say: “I’m not being a good friend. And now that I realize how important that is to my health, there’s no excuse for not doing better.”
I’m not lonely. Not yet. Maybe a bit sad that I don’t get to see my friends. But what this did was force me to recognize that I was putting myself on a path where loneliness would be inevitable. On the list of things that will make me happy and healthy, spending quality time with the friends I already have is the lowest of the low-hanging fruit. Yet it’s so easy for me to just let it sit there while I do a million other “important” things and lie to myself that those friendships are not going to rot.
But already the changes are happening. The fellas are rallying. My plan to steal “Wednesday night” is already in the works. Lots of guys want in. Lots of guys are admitting that they need it.
And I’ve even heard from Ozzie’s crew, mentioned in my original story, the ones I’m stealing “Wednesday night” from. I wasn’t fishing for it, but I’m happy to report that I got the invite to their regular weeknight get-togethers.
The only person I did not actually hear from is Ozzie, who was apparently with his “backcountry boys” skiing on Mount Shasta in California. Further evidence I need to think more like Ozzie.
But I did hear from his wife, Sandy, who cautioned me that “they tend to resort to utter buffoonery.” Sounds like my kind of crowd.
If you’re one of the many people who e-mailed me and have not heard back, my apologies. I’m trying to keep up. In the meantime, you know who else you should be e-mailing. It’s that easy.
Now I just need to find a story that will obligate the Globe to send me to Vienna so I can go see Rory.
Billy Baker is a Globe reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook.com/heybillybaker.