On Thirty-Something Male Friendship

PodcastsI like to think of myself as a refined and intelligent consumer and I want my listening to reflect that in case I need to impress someone riding in the car with me. My podcast subscriptions fall mostly in the categories of news, cultural commentary, interviews with interesting people, and deep dives into topics that intrigue me (most recently, theoretical physics – impressive, right?). But, one podcast icon stands out from among the rest. It’s one I probably wouldn’t play to impress someone in the car and the one I most look forward to each week.

A few years ago, I was watching a video on YouTube when a video on the recommendation sidebar caught my eye. It was about the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m not a huge comic book fan, but I was intrigued so I clicked on the video.

What followed was a conversation between two guys who were clearly good friends, speculating over upcoming Marvel movies, punctuated by frequent tangents and, occasionally, actual quotes from Marvel Studios. I wasn’t sure why at the time but I loved it. At the end of the video, there was a link to the podcast from which this conversation had apparently been clipped – The Weekly Planet. I subscribed that day and, more than two hundred episodes later, I am still listening.

I have often wondered why I like this show so much. It bills itself as the official podcast of comicbookmovie.com, a website I never visit, and is mostly either a breakdown of movies and TV shows I haven’t seen yet or an large-scale overview of themes from movies in the past few decades, some I have seen and some I haven’t (e.g. “Biggest/Most Insane Movie Feuds,” “Biggest Box Office Bombs,” “Best/Worst Comic Book Movie Directors”). Yet, every Monday morning I download the next episode and look forward to the drive home when I get to indulge in my weekly fix.

Recently, the primary host (James) was on another podcast talking about the creation of The Weekly Planet and he said something that gave me a clue into my habit. He explained that he had wanted the podcast to be simply the conversations that he and his friend (co-host Nick) were already having, just recorded and organized around various topics. He didn’t start the podcast with much direction but he knew he wanted his friendship with Nick to be at the center of it.

Whether you listen to the very first episode or the most recent one, it is basically the same experience – two guys talking about their mutual fascination with comic book-based (and other fantasy-based) entertainment, which often includes a lot of sarcasm, tangents, and inside jokes.

Weekly Planet

I realized that I love this podcast because these two guys have a friendship that reminds me of my closest guy friends. Like James and Nick, we bonded over shared interests and experiences. Like them, our conversations are sprinkled with inside jokes and quotes from our collection of shared obsessions from 15+ years of friendship (Arrested Development, the Halo games, Star Wars, Strong Bad emails, etc.).

The Weekly Planet might be about comic book movies on its surface, but I would argue it is (at least indirectly) a podcast about male friendship. It is a weekly display of the hidden depths that come only from relationships that make up half a lifetime and transition through stages of life into something deeper than affinity.

When I listen to the podcast every week, it awakens the longing I have to reconnect with my own friends. Like a lot of men in their thirties, I have experienced the thinning of relationships that comes with marriage, kids, relocating, job shifts, and the other transitions that happen to many people in their mid-to-late twenties. Friendships that were forged in the fires of late-night Taco Bell runs three nights per week cool to monthly family hangouts when schedules allow. Planning happens weeks ahead of time or else we never see each other. I understand why this is necessary but, still, I lament. Why is it so hard to keep old friendships thriving, much less make new ones, as we get older?

A friend posted this Boston Globe article a few months ago that highlights the health risks for people who live in isolation and, specifically, the challenges for men to stay connected as they age. One of its many illuminating insights is that men seem to need an activity to do together in order to build and keep a friendship. He says that though women seem to be able to connect more easily via a pure relational interface like talking on the phone, if men aren’t doing something side-by-side, they lose connectivity quickly.

As I was reading, I remembered a conversation I had with my dad when I was a teenager. He confided in me that he constantly felt lonely. He looked around at his world and, though he loved his family and had a successful business, he didn’t feel like he had any friends. I wondered while reading this article how much this contributed to the health issues that took him on such a rapid decline in the later years of his life. I am still haunted by the fear that I will one day say the same thing to my own children.

Perhaps the thing that draws me the most to The Weekly Planet is the mere fact that it is The Weekly Planet, as opposed to the Monthly or Quarterly or Whenever We Can Find a Babysitter Planet. James and Nick get together every week just to hit record and talk together about something they both love. Their friendship is continually stoked by the discipline of doing something together. They were doing it before the podcast was making any money and I hope they keep doing it long after podcasts are profitable.

When the show hit 200 episodes a few weeks back, Nick surprised James with a cake to celebrate. The cake was decorated with the number 198, a reference to (and small jab at) the fact that though Nick has been present every week, James has actually missed two of the 200+ episodes of the podcast. Obviously this was a joke, but something about those numbers moved me on a deeper level.

Two hundred weekly podcast episodes represent roughly four years of time. I wondered to myself what might happen in my own life, in my family’s life, and in the broader community of which I am a part if our commitment to one another was so strong that it was a tease-worthy “offense” to have missed two weekly gatherings in four years. Who knows what depths we might plumb together and what riches we might find there? I wonder what I need to rearrange in my own life to reach old age with a group of guys that still jokes about TV shows from our twenties but also exudes the warmth of years spent in each other’s regular presence.

For a podcast whose theme song includes only the lyrics “red-hot comic book movie news shooting up your butthole,” I am surprisingly challenged every week, maybe even more so than from all my other, more refined listens.

Thanks James and Nick,
Kale

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Book Review: The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch

techwiseThe Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch. Baker Books (April 2017, 221 pp).

When it comes to being a fan of art, I have two different modes: casual and obsessive. As a casual fan of artists like Anne Lamott or Coldplay, I have no problem picking and choosing the bits and pieces of their catalog that I like and forgetting about the rest. I don’t feel an urgent need to catch up on what I have missed and I am perfectly fine to not pick up the next album or book if it doesn’t strike me.

On the other hand, there are a few artists about whom I obsess. I will buy every Andrew Peterson album that ever comes out. I will pre-order the craziest package with the behind-the-scenes photos and videos and recipes for the cookies they ate in the studio. I will read the liner notes and memorize who is singing background vocals or playing the guitar solo on each song. Artists like Andrew are the reason why I have to have a very specific line item for personal spending in our monthly budget.

I am an obsessive Andy Crouch fan. I devoured his three previous books (Culture Making, Playing God, Strong and Weak) and plan to read everything else he puts out from here until Jesus comes back. That being said, even if you don’t find yourself in this camp, I would highly recommend giving his new book, The Tech-Wise Family, a read, particularly if you are a parent or ever desire to be one.

The Good and the Quotable:

Generally speaking, I would call Crouch a framework thinker. He is interested in organizing the large ideas that govern our everyday lives into a simple framework of understanding that helps us understand how concepts like power, injustice, idolatry, vulnerability, and now, technology, interact and shape the way we view and act in the world.

That being said, The Tech-wise Family is also an immensely practical book. In the preface, Crouch identifies the core problem:

“…the pace of technological change has surpassed anyone’s capacity to develop enough wisdom to handle it. We are stuffing our lives with technology’s new promises, with no clear sense of whether technology will help us keep the promises we’ve already made” (17).

After a thoughtful introduction setting up the need for families to address the elephant in the room that is our collective addiction to technology and a helpful explanation of nudges and disciplines as tools that can help us wean off our devices, the rest of the book is structured around what Crouch calls “Ten Tech-Wise Commitments” that his family keeps to maintain a healthy relationship with each other and with technology.

barnaSprinkled throughout the book are findings from a recent massive Barna survey of parents and kids about the use of technology in the home. At the end of each chapter, Crouch gives a “Reality Check,” where he shares where his own family has succeeded and struggled (often both) with each of the ten commitments. Between Crouch’s heartfelt stories, the practicality of each of the ten steps, and the large-scale findings of the Barna survey, this fast-reading book feels like the exact right tool to give to parents, would-be parents, and anyone else who fears their devices are beginning to (or long ago managed to) encroach upon their relationships.

As always, here are a few of my favorite quotes to entice you to buy this book:

“But if there’s one thing our children need to hear from us, over and over again, it’s this: ‘Our family is different.’” (19)

“Technology is in its proper place when it helps us bond with the real people we have been given to love. It’s out of its proper place when we end up bonding with people at a distance, like celebrities, whom we will never meet” (20)

“Our homes aren’t meant to be just refueling stations…They are meant to be places where the very best of life happens” (29)

“Build your life around not having a TV, and when you finally do have a TV, almost nothing will change” (31)

“Family is about the forming of persons…But while in one sense a person is simply what we are as human beings, we are also able to become – to grow in capacities that are only potentially present within us at first” (52)

“Fill the center of your life together – the literal center, the heart of your home, the place where you spend the most time together – with the things that reward creativity, relationship, and engagement. Push technology and cheap thrills to the edges; move deeper and more lasting things to the core.” (71)

“The more you entertain children, the more bored they will get” (141)

The home is the place where worship of the true God starts: the place where we remember and recite God’s Word, and where we learn to respond to God with our heart, soul, strength, and – as Jesus added when he called this the greatest commandment – with our mind as well” (190)

The Transferable:

This book was written to be immediately applicable so much of it could be quickly transferred into the life of the reader. Personally, I found the stories of how Crouch’s family had incorporated the commitments in their home to be some of the most stirring transferable elements. In the chapter on Sabbath-keeping, he shares that their family has a Sunday afternoon tea tradition in which they (kids too!) prepare a simple meal that is easily shared with friends and neighbors allowing their community to fully rest after church on Sundays and share time together without worrying about the work going in or coming out of the meal. I love this idea and could easily imagine implementing it in our family as my daughter gets older.

Who Should Read This:

This is one of few books that I would recommend to absolutely everyone. It might be most meaningful to parents but Crouch does a wonderful job of not making it feel alienating to those without kids. It really is an immensely practical and insightful book and one that I feel everyone should read.