Thursday, February 10, 2011

Hanging On - Remaining friends through thick and thin

Acting like fools on a King's Island roller coaster - and wearing identical Tubes concert t-shirts too!

I ran into my cousin John at a Super Bowl party in Toledo, Sunday night. We hadn’t seen each other for quite a while, so I asked him how he was doing.

“I’ve never been more depressed in my whole life.” He told me.

“Must be an epidemic.” I replied.

It wasn’t exactly the best way to start off the evening, so for the next three hours we watched the Packers beat down the Steelers and tried to figure out why it was we were feeling so down.

Watching the Super Bowl and talking about sports was easy for us - talking about life was completely different - something we’d never really done all that much before. But there we were, talking more about the way we were feeling than about dropped passes or botched National Anthems - not exactly typical guy stuff.

John and I grew up down the street from each other in our small hometown of Berlin Heights, Ohio. He was a year older and a grade ahead of me in school, but for most of our childhood we were pretty much inseparable. I always considered us best friends instead of cousins, and I made it a point to defend that notion whenever some neighborhood kid would tell me John couldn’t be my “best friend” because we were related.

Growing up, there wasn’t a single thing John did that I didn’t do myself. When he got a basketball, I got a basketball. When he took up golf, I took up golf. I even made it a point to try and have a crush on the same girls he liked. It was probably annoying as hell for him, but he never complained. That’s just the way it was, and that’s the way I thought it always would be. But things change, and our friendship was no different.

It all started when John graduated from high school. Without him around, it really took the air out of my senior year – a year that was supposed to one of my best. I had fun, sure, but for the very first time in my life, I suddenly felt alone.

John went to work at his dad’s gas station while I finished up my last year of school. I rarely saw him during the week, but we’d still get together nearly every weekend to play some kind of sport or go to a concert, or at least talk about them.

When I graduated from high school I got a job working as a bag boy at the local grocery store. By then, John had left the gas station to go to work at a printing press. At the end of each workday, we made it a point to meet up and hang out, usually on a golf course somewhere.

That was a great year for me. We were still young and relatively carefree, and even though we both sensed the end of our carefree days was near, it didn’t bother either one of us because we knew the groundwork of our friendship had been laid and no matter what happened from that point on, we would remain best friends the rest of our lives.

Over the next several years our communication often would flitter between very little to non-existent. It didn’t matter. We’d grown to be the ultimate guys. We didn’t need constant communication to strengthen our bond or know how important we were to each other.

When I got married in 1996, John was my best man. (I had been his in 1987). He had two kids by then and had another one on the way. He was a busy guy raising his young family, working a ton, and stressed to the bone, but he still found the time to be at my side on my big day and I appreciated it. We didn’t speak much in the days leading up to my wedding, or even at my wedding, but we did go out and play golf the day before.

Before the year was over my wife and I had our first kid. Two years later we added our second, by then, John and his wife already had three girls. Not to be outdone, my wife and I added a third child two years later. That was enough for me, but just to be sure I got a vasectomy - it was the first time in my life I actually did something before John did - a few months later, he followed suit and got one as well, but his wasn’t quite as successful and later that year, his fourth child, a girl I nicknamed “Houdini” was born.

For the past 15-years, John and I have lived similar lives in different towns and somehow we’ve managed to carry on our friendship with little or no communication, usually seeing each other only once or twice a year.

We’ve muddled through the highs and lows of life doing the best we can while trying to do things the right way. We bought houses, had kids, and lived our lives clean. Yes, we’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way, but for the most part our kids have turned out normal, maybe even above average, and soon, before either one of us really wants it or expects it, they’ll be out on their own.

We’re older now - much older. We’ve both seen parents die the last few years, and when the economy went down the crapper, we watched our careers go down with it.

On Sunday I guess it really hit him, and me, that not only were we both suddenly middle-aged, but also we had not a single, solitary clue of what the hell we’re doing, or how the hell we’ll cope with the challenges we’ll surely face in the coming years.

When John told me he was depressed, I immediately felt the need to talk about it. Truth is, I’d been needing to talk to somebody starting with the day I went to see a college financial advisor who told me I ought to seriously consider getting a new job – one that pays a lot more, and now I had a captive audience.

“Maybe we’re depressed because our kids are getting older.” I said just before kickoff.

“Maybe.” John replied.

“Or maybe we’re depressed because we’re getting older.” I said.

“Could be.”

“Or maybe we’re depressed because for the first time in our lives we’re parentless and everything we’ve ever worked for in our lives has blown up in our face!”

“Jesus Lon, you’re not really making me feel any better.” He said.

It felt really strange to be talking to John about something besides sports, but it also felt good.

Modern technology had cost us both our jobs. The Internet helped kill the newspaper I worked for, but it also sent a lot of magazines to an early grave too. Since John’s press printed mostly magazine ads and inserts, he never really stood a chance. Both our companies fought valiantly to stay alive, but both eventually threw in the towel.

In many ways John and I are lucky because we both found new jobs doing essentially the same thing we did at our old jobs. But neither one of us is particularly happy with our new gigs and it’s not just because we're making a lot less money.

“Did you ever think you’d work anywhere else at this point in your life?” I asked him.

“Never – I thought I’d retire at my old plant.” He said.

“Yeah, I really liked working at The News too.” I said. “I know taking pictures is taking pictures, but it just isn’t the same.”

We went on to reminisce about our time as kids – simpler times that didn’t involve anything more than a ball, a glove, and a front door to walk out of. No video games, no cell phones, no computers. If we we’re bored we’d sit on my front porch and count cars to see if there were more Ford’s driving down the street than Chevy’s. It was a time I wish my own kids could have experienced, but they too, are victims of the modern age.

“I’ve lost my daughters to technology.” I told John. “They can’t go anywhere without their stupid cell phones buzzing every five seconds.”

“I don’t get this whole texting thing.” He said.

“Tell me about it, Olivia spends half her day texting her damn boyfriend. I asked her why she doesn’t just call him and she told me texting was easier. How in the hell is texting on a microscopic keypad easier than talking?”

“Maybe they just don’t know how to talk to each other.” John said.

“Exactly! Modern technology is bass-ackward - I mean if the phone had been invented after email or texting, people would be saying, ‘You mean I don’t have to type on a keypad anymore … I can just talk to someone on this thing … THAT’S AMAZING!!!’”

“It won’t be long before nothing is printed on paper anymore either.” John added.

“Now John - why would anyone want to read a newspaper or, God forbid, a book, when they can just go online and fry their eyeballs on a Kindle or burn the tops of their thighs reading their laptop on the shitter?” I asked sarcastically. “Christ, people can’t even drive down the frickin’ street anymore without their GPS telling them where to go.”

“This must be how people felt during the industrial revolution when cars started replacing horses.” John said.

“Probably.” I said. “But at least the horses were better off.”

We both sat silently for a while and watched the end of the first quarter, then a commercial for the latest iPhone came on.

“Can you imagine how different our lives would have been if we had that crap when we were kids?” I asked.

John didn’t say anything. Neither did I. We just shook our heads at the thought and for the rest of the game we did what we’ve always done best - we talked about sports.


  1. OK. This sounds like the kind of stuff I say. We're all getting to be the Old Fogies we complained about when we were young. And YOU'RE a lot younger than I!
    But yes, technology has advance much faster than our brain's adaptability rate. And I'm sure it IS very much like the lifetime of my grandfather, who told me, while we watched some rocket or other take off for the moon or Mars: "When I was a boy, there were more horses than cars. Now people are going to the moon! Things sure have changed!"

  2. I am going to approach this from a different slant, if you don't mind.

    It is NOT only the world has begun to leave us behind (because I am with you both on the texting, smart phone thing). It is that unlike the industrial revolution, everything that we know about the dual edge of the advance of society through technology leaves us with a failed shadow of what makes us 'human'. I think that adds to the individual alienation that many are feeling these days.

    Even those who have intergrated the new technology into their lives still are missing out on the human touch, the acknowledgement that is unmistakable in a voice, a touch, in another's eyes. It is a world that is not beyond our imagination as the thoughts of going into space may have been prior to the Wright Bros. taking to the sky. But we can imagine it and we fear for the future...

    ... or this could be an entry about two guys experiencing the existensential rite of passage that is the mid-life crisis, having lived as islands in the ocean of life.

    Finally, I could be simply talking out of my butt... something I have been known to do from time to time!

  3. Big Mark, I thought all of your assessments were spot on, except the last one - I don't think you're talking out of your butt at all.