On Turning Forty: Toxic Masculinity, Burst Eardrums, and Hugging Marie

Today is my 41st birthday.

Last birthday I launched a blog project, “On Turning Forty.” I did a number of posts and then it sputtered like a 1987 Le Car trying to drag race an ’86 Yugo. Dissertation, teaching, pneumonia, and ongoing struggles attenuating lifing while bipolar. Yes, you read that correctly. Living is one thing; lifing is something else. Similar to adulting, but that kid inside is still working a few levers. Lifing while bipolar is much harder than living with it.

This week I found out that I am going deaf. As you can read from previous entries, I’m honestly good with it. And it is not imminent. However, I went to cover a YSHS alumni event I really wanted to attend and at which I was going to gather interviews for a series I am writing for the News. As I was chatting with our superintendent of schools about teaching students the Five Pillars of Islam and taking them to a local mosque, the volume in the room increased significantly and quickly. It was filled with people who have not seen each other in decades, in some cases, honoring two undefeated football teams at a school that has not consistently had football since I was a student. Our soccer team got to play homecoming, which was cool for me because our soccer team was awesome. I was not, at all. I played JV my whole career, but my senior year I got to start the homecoming game/Senior Night. I was pulled quickly, but that was totally fine. Anyway, the undefeated football teams being honored was bringing together a lot of loud people together. We all got loud mouths in YS.

Talking with the superintendent, my left eardrum burst. I managed to hold my face together, calmly pack up, and then go tell my friend Dawn who was organizing it that I had to leave. I’m now at home with a very loud head and sensitive ears.

But that’s not what this blog is about, really. If this were a psalm, it would not be one of lament. It would be a praise psalm in which I am looking back at a period of my life and appreciating how God was working and leading.

From the ages of 13-14, I lived next door to my best friend, Marie. We were virtually inseparable. It was very Kevin and Winny. But we were actually two complex kids going through really complicated life circumstances. The details don’t matter; what does matter is that I think Marie was my first “unrequited” love. We listened to music together; we talked about books; we would take long bike rides together; we would sleep out on the screened-in porch at my house. She was my best friend in every sense of the word.

Marie was beautiful. Long, blonde hair. Very pretty. And she developed physically quite quickly and noticably. Seniors in high school were hitting on her as an 8th grader. So, I won’t lie and say that I was not gaga over her because she was hot. That was part of it. But not the bulk. It was the first time that I talked about my dreadful insecurity with my body. Marie and I were both showing signs of later exercise addictions; for the first time I felt like someone outside my family got me, and I didn’t necessarily think my family got me. I did not drool over her. I did not try to make inappropriate passes. But I did feel special because all these guys wanted to date her and she spent time with me. A lot of time with me. I absolutely fell in love with her. Hard. I remember once thinking about kissing her when we were sitting under a bush in a park; she was moving out of town the next morning, and I so wanted to do it. But I couldn’t muster the gumption (Muster the Gumption is the name of my Mot the Hopple tribute band) to do it.

Oh, if only the story ended there. But it doesn’t. Ever a writer, I wrote her a love manifesto, confessing my sincere desire to be her fella. She told me no, only because she was 20 minutes away and we were 14 and 15 years old. I didn’t believe that and then essentially withdrew my friendship. She wrote me letter after letter–I still have them–to no response. Finally, she wrote me a letter saying that our friendship had come to a close because I was not being a good friend, and was punishing her for not being my girlfriend. I started to burn it but then blew it out. I still have that letter, too, charred edges and all.

By the time I graduated from high school, over half of my good friends were girls/women. I’ve written before about not having many male friends. The ones I do are great, great people, largely because they do not have a drop of toxic masculinity in them. At the age of 18, I realized that I never wanted to be one of those guys who would tell a girl how beautiful she is, only to call her a fat cow when she simply said, “I’m not interested.” I realized that Marie had all these guys sniffing around her, and I was her best friend. I know we were just kids, so I have forgiven myself for what I did, but only because I made it a strict policy to never hit on my female friends again. I am a serial monogamist, and I was in a committed relationship for my entire 20s. My longest, sustained, meaningful friendships are almost 8:1, female to male. So at my 35th birthday party, almost everyone present was female. My life is rich and full because of badass women, and Marie was one of the first.

I saw her today for the first time in 25 years. We’d gotten in touch when her mother attended a Beloved Community Project liturgia. My contact info got to Marie, we started emailing, and today, on my 41st birthday, I got to hug my dear friend and meet her wonderful husband. We talked for about 90 minutes, and it was like nothing had changed. Her eyes and smile are the same; my heart is filled with the same love and appreciation for her, and I got to tell her in person about the influence she has had on me.

Yeah, I blew out an eardrum. Whatevs. I’m alive and loved and in love with so many people; but mainly, I am grateful that there are so many incredible women who have helped me be accepting of myself, even in my maddening contradictions and idiosyncrasies. I’ve carried a bit of Marie in my heart, and she me, to get us through until our paths alighted upon a common ground. Now that we are here, I say thanks be to God. IMG_2900.JPG

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