This column isn’t pegged to any breaking news, nor does it include my two cents on some great world event. When it arrives at your electronic doorstep, the only oil slick I’ll be worrying about is the one at the bottom of a huge empty bag of Kitch’n Cook’d potato chips. I’ll be in the center of West Virginia, sitting in a lawn chair playing and listening to about 12 hours of bluegrass a day for four straight days. To some, that might seem like a cruel and unusual sort of punishment. But to me, it’s almost heaven.
Every year for more than a decade I’ve gone with my brother, some good male friends, and a bunch of our guy relatives to the Music in the Mountains festival in Summersville, W.Va., and planted our flag. Women aren’t invited, but they do prepare a picnic for our trip. Save your letters—this is actually a clever ruse on their part. The better the food every summer, the more likely we are to continue our annual tradition and give them peace at least one week out of the year. Some have been known to say off the record that the festival can’t come around soon enough.
We eat Southern fried chicken, deer salad (think chicken salad, but with venison), my grandmother’s potato salad, and desserts so decadent and full of butter, you need to have a defibrillator on hand just to look at them. We also chow down on what seem like hundreds of deviled eggs. I once tried to eat a dozen at once on a dare, but I wasn’t exactly Cool Hand Luke. Word to the wise: never take this sort of bet after you’ve been drinking Old Milwaukee in the hot sun for several hours.
When we’re not eating mayo-based foods, we also drink copious amounts of bourbon, and sit around in circles in lawn chairs and talk about manly stuff: women, mostly. What’s the deal with them, anyway? We don’t know, but after years of making this pilgrimage I have figured out they are different from us. Especially when it comes to how we communicate. Women don’t need to manufacture reasons to chat—they just do it in any old setting. Guys need excuses like outings or organized events. Fantasy baseball, hunting camps, and poker games are artificial constructs that allow men to talk to each other. Sure, work stress or prostate issues might happen to come up, but as long as the playing cards keep getting dealt, we can pretend not to be aware of the actual awkward discussion that’s taking place.
And I’ve noticed, by watching women in the wild, that when they’re in groups there can be several conversations going on at once within separate pods. When men are in a group, one man talks, and everybody else listens. It’s like bluegrass jamming in a way. (The original Iron John drum circle.) One plays lead, and the rest try to stay on the right chord and play the amen chorus. As long as the rules are followed, everything’s cool.
I know, because I’ve had more heartfelt conversations with other men at the festival than I’ve had at any other time in my life. Partly it’s because there are no women there, and partly it’s because we’re all a little drunk. One year we went around the circle and some of us talked openly about the types of cancer we’d had. It was males bonding over whatever parts we still had left. The festival is also the only place I’ve ever cried in front of other men, unless you count Old Yeller viewings. (I just wrote a joke nobody under 50 is going to get. Luckily for me, no one under 50 reads NEWSWEEK.)
As the years have slipped by, some in our group have lost parents and grandparents, some have divorced, and others have changed careers, not always on purpose. It seems that every year something traumatic has happened to at least one member of our crew, and the rest of us are there to listen and offer support. I’ve learned a lot from the travails of the other men in our group, especially the older ones. It’s reassuring to know these men I’ve looked up to since childhood have experienced a lot of the same fears I have.
My favorite story by far from all of those years of “I love you, man” blathering boils down to a single line delivered by our old friend whose neighbor kept letting his cows “accidentally” slip into the field where he kept his prize bull. When my friend confronted the man, his neighbor lied to his face. Things were never the same between them. The lesson he learned that day, he said, as he leaned back in his chair, was “never trust a man who’d steal a bull poke.” (Actually, he used another word that can’t be repeated here, even for readers over 50.) That was followed in the circle by lots of damn-straights, and you-got-that-rights, and by me, thinking to myself, I can sit at my computer and type a thousand words a day for the rest of my life and never write anything more true and perfect.
This year a lot of the regulars in our group aren’t going to make it back for various reasons, my dad among them. I don’t understand why anyone would want to take a break from talking about cancer while watching 48 hours of banjo music, but to each his own. I can’t see inside another man’s heart.
But I hope if this column is good for anything, it offers this solace for the fairer sex: if your man heads out on a bowling or poker night with the guys, be happy. Chances are good he’s not fleeing you and the kids—well, maybe he is a little—but he’s also running toward the conversations he can only have with other men, and he’ll come home the better for it. And besides, how else is he supposed to learn that you can never trust a man who’d steal a bull #@•%!? For some lessons, you need to be in the company of men.