Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Moths and men don’t have friends. But children and foxes do.  §

I’m writing this on the Neo tonight because sometimes it just feels like there’s so very much noise in every other space, on every other device. The networked world intrudes even when it doesn’t intrude.

We don’t have enough “connection” in our world, and yet as the trope goes, we can’t disconnect either. I imagine this means that the forms of connection at issue are the wrong ones.

But whatever. I digress and I haven’t even started yet.

— § —

I haven’t touched the Neo in months, but tonight when I reached up to the top shelf and pulled it out, a dead moth fell to my desktop with a thump. One wing was still attached; the other wing slowly fluttered down and ultimately came to rest right beside it.

© Aron Hsiao / 2018

For a moment—so brief as to be almost imperceptible—I was made incredibly sad by this moth’s long-completed passing. By the fact that it was once a living creature. By the fact that it lay there so long, high on a shelf, in darkness, undiscovered. By the fact that it’s finally been discovered not by any being that can make use of it or that ever wanted to know it, but by a human that will, in short order, throw its body into the trash.

Then I remembered that it was a bug, and all of that disappeared. But for a moment—for a moment, I swear I felt so much pathos—and so much compassion for—this moth.

Meanwhile, I’ve just watched Molly (my dog) eat a beetle without ceremony, and I felt nothing. So whatever.

— § —

I was taken aback early this morning by the thought that the people that I know at my taekwondo gym, and see only in that capacity, are probably my best (not to mention only) local friends.

This has come up before. Other people—mostly women—and especially exes—have for many years told me that I need to make more friends. Every now and then, though not too often, I’ve reflected on this, but this morning I happened to see without delay just why I don’t have many local friends, and why it’s always women saying this to me, never other men I know or have known.

The reason is, quite simply, that men don’t have friends. This goes double for fathers.

This is often framed as some sort of homophobia, or as some sort of internalized form of gender oppression related to masculinity, but it’s actually much simpler than all of that.

First of all, men without children don’t have friends because they have girlfriends. The cultural judgment here is that a man who has a girlfriend but hangs around with other men is a jerk. Worse if he hangs around with other women. He ought to be spending time with with his significant other, and with her friends (as the old Spice Girls song suggests). If he can’t do that, he’s sexist or chauvinist, a cad, or at the very least tremendously selfish and insensitive.

And let’s be clear, we’re talking about “hangs around” because to sustain a real friendship requires time. Regular time. Like, hours per day multiple days per month kinds of time. Any man who invests in a friendship in this way will soon find himself without a significant other and facing rather a lot of judgment from anyone in his circle.

The only condition under which it is permissible for a man to have a friend is when he is single. However, when he’s single, befriending a woman (particularly in today’s climate) also invites judgment along lines of sexual culture. It’s not comfortable to socialize with women that aren’t significant others because every moment is fraught with risk and optics questions. Meanwhile, socializing with other single guys gives rise to an uncomfortable elephant in the room: “We’re both here, given social norms, purely because we’re single.”

It becomes impossible to decide whether you’re actually friends or whether you just happen to be single together and at a loose end, and that sort of “Are we really friends?” ambiguity is never conducive to intimacy or even patience. Guys don’t have patience for ambiguous situations; we generally want to resolve them. When we can’t, we tend to just blurt it out. “I have no idea whether we’re actually friends or just here because we don’t have a date.” “Yeah, I get you man.” “See you later.” “No doubt.”

Meanwhile, if you have children, friends are absolutely verboten to a man, for a variety of reasons:

  • You are being keenly and continuously judged on whether you spend your free time with your children. Fail to do so and you may soon no longer have them.

  • You are being keenly judged on the behavior of any friends that you have, which is a tremendous risk. Their behaviors and crimes become yours. How well do you really know your friends? Will one of them declare bankruptcy? Did one of them once hit a girlfriend? Has one of them been seen exiting a gentleman’s club? You may well find out about these things only at the moment that you lose your children because of “the company you keep.” Better not to risk it.

  • Then, there’s the direct issue—this behavior isn’t bad merely because of its knock-on effects. How much do you want any non-family, non-significant other adult around your children? Why, exactly, don’t they have a family? Why, exactly, do they have time for “friendships,” and what does this say about their safety around children?

  • Of course, there’s also the life-stage thing. Reach a certain age and most of the people your age also have families (and/or ex-families) and children. They don’t have any more time or risk tolerance for you than you have for them.

  • Which leads, finally, to the most important item. If you’re a man with children in today’s society, whether in an intact marriage or (doubly so) not, you don’t get to spend nearly as much time with your children as you’d like. At the very least, there’s work. Then, for divorced men, there’s the custody thing. A good deal of spare time, if not all of it, belongs to the kids, not to “friends.” The time in your life that doesn’t belong to your boss is severely limited. You want it to belong to your children or, barring that, to yourself.

None of the things above have to do with homophobia, and none of them have to do with machismo, “toxic masculinity,” or any of that nonsense.

If you doubt what I’m saying here, just imagine—for example—a single man who befriends a married couple with kids. He’s always hanging around with them all, he as the lone outsider, stopping by for random reasons to spend hours hanging out in the house with them. What do you think of him? Be honest. Or, imagine a divorced dad with small children who spends a ton of time hanging around with other single guys (because, of course, the non-single guys are all required to be with their significant others). What do you think of him? Be honest.

For men in our society, friendship with other men isn’t on the cards. It’s effectively prohibited—not by norms of masculinity that a man aspires to embody, but by the threats and failures of masculinity that society ascribes to him, regardless of who he is, whether he is single or married, childless or a father, and whether the hypothetical friends involved are male, female, or couple.

The culture is simply such that it’s frowned upon—and likely a significant personal risk—for an adult man to invest in “real” friendships of any kind.

Which is why men all seem to have “old friends from college” or “old friends from high school” that live several states, or at least several cities, away, that they get together with just a few times per year (or per decade). These “old reliable” friends avoid all of the problems above by not taking too much time and not being too nearby. They’re allowed.

— § —

There was some other topic that hit me a bit hard this morning, but now I forget what it was. I hate that—when in the morning I muse about a topic for an hour as I work distractedly on something else, thinking “by god, I have so much to say here, I could write a book”—yet by evening I can’t remember what it was in the first place.

© Aron Hsiao / 2003

— § —

A thing deserving mention: walking through a public space this afternoon, I saw a young girl absent-mindedly carrying around a plush fox toy.

Like the aforementioned moth, this generated a rush of emotion for which I wasn’t prepared.

First, I was filled with that swell of feeling that can only be described as “parentness.” It’s a strange mix of deep love, the tragic (you re-feel all of the times you couldn’t protect the innocence of your children or save them from little pains), and the beautiful (you are in awe of the sublimity of what innocence remains), all juxtaposed with the image of your own child(ren) that your encounter with someone else’s child brings to the fore.

I realized at the same time that I also felt no small amount of envy. Yes, envy. And loss.

It is rather too hard, and too bland, and too dark to be an adult in our society. To be straining to outrun terrible fates of all kind (financial, familial, career, etc.) every moment of every day, trying to keep a roof over small heads and so on. Okay, I’ll cop, I admit that this is likely not a problem of society per se but more of the reality of life on earth for mammals that must care for their young.

Such a sense of loss, though. That I can’t have such things, carry such things, tactilely or emotionally experience such things any longer. That I’m not capable of finding any joy in them any longer. There’s simply too much reality onboard.

I’ve heard that one of the things that happens to you as you get older—no doubt as the mantle of responsibility for others finally begins to fall away—is that you return to childhood and to exuberance and to innocence, rediscovering the ability to enjoy little, beautiful things once again.

I’ll hope that this is so. And if it is, I hope that when I get there, I remember to get ahold of a small plush fox, carry it everywhere, and enjoy it immensely in whatever time I have left before I die.

More realistically—I hope that I eventually get there at all. Our lot, as members of the not-elite classes, is often to die before our serious “they’re-depending-on-us” working years are even close to being done, leaving everyone in the lurch.

In which case there is no second childhood after all, which would seem to be transcendentally unfair.

At some level I suppose that’s what everyone is after out there, in the end—even the Nazis and the Bolsheviks, in their own desperately misguided ways. The possibility of a return to childhood.

When you can, of course, have not just little plush foxes, but also friends.

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