The sports bar at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington, D.C. is generously described as dimly lit. The majority of the illumination came from a few small post lights and the giant LED-screen TVs that showcased the Washington Nationals mounting a seventh-inning comeback against the Philadelphia Phillies.
At the behest of my wife, I’d come here alone in hopes of finding something that would smooth out the uneven nature of the last few days, maybe the last few months.
“Go downstairs and get a drink,” she told me as the din of my child’s audiobook leaked from the pink and black headphones next to us. “You are so wound up.”
The convention we were attending had been better than I thought. The lack of “stuff to do” turned out to be anything but the case. Despite not having three or four papers to present, I managed to fill my time just fine. A meeting with a publisher here, a lunch with a colleague there and suddenly, we were about 8 hours away from heading to the airport and heading home.
In between all of that, we had been told we would be getting an offer on our house. Of course, we were in D.C., our real estate agent was in Canada and nothing could be done for at least two more days.
All of this conspired to turn me into a ball of bipolar.
I sat alone at the fairly deserted bar. Saturday nights at these conventions were like the last couple hours at an after-hours club: The big names had come and gone and most of the people left spent their time sending, “Is anyone still here?” tweets to an abandoned hashtag.
Somewhere in the middle of my second Jack and Diet, a thick, strong hand came to rest on my shoulder.
“Christ, they’ll let anyone in here…”
Scott and I had started out in about the same place, him a little behind me. I was finishing my doctorate while he finished his master’s. I helped teach him some stats, he helped me figure out what life was like as a dad. He was about ten years older than I was, but I was usually a half a step ahead. I landed a job and argued with anyone who would listen that we should hire him next. He found research projects, I figured out new ways to apply his stuff.
Somewhere around his third year and my sixth, we both decided it was necessary to make a change. I came home to a lesser university with a smaller faculty (complete with one borderline character assassin who had taken an interest in harming me). He took a job at a top-flight research institution, a state flagship and a key player in our field.
He took a seat next to me at the bar and ordered a shittiest tap beer they had. It was so light, it reminded me of the joke a visiting professor from Australia once told me: “You know,” he began in that academic way. “Your American beer is quite a bit like intercourse in a canoe… Fucking close to water.”
Scott was always my guy. He was a sportswriter who had gone into academia as a second career. He once competed in amateur boxing as part of a story he was writing. He was a hockey player with a defenseman’s attitude and build.
We began to talk and it was about the third or fourth conversation that week. It was the usual: work, kids, family, weather and people we dislike.
Near the end of my third drink, he asked me, “What’s going on? You’ve been hiding.”
I didn’t get his meaning and I didn’t know what it was that I was supposed to say. Fortunately, Scott was never one to let indecision on someone else’s part stop him from being even more direct.
“You haven’t been to one of these in a couple years. You don’t call to get me in on some project or research or something any more. You’re off the grid. What is going on? It’s like you’re hiding.”
I got it. He was right. It was like having my head slammed into the boards as a wakeup call.
I stopped being comfortable at these events after we moved. I felt less than or at least that other people were more than. I went from “on the way up” to a tragic tale of wasted opportunity. I went from presenting five or six papers per convention to two or three. This year, I didn’t even get one and had to settle for the mercy of a division that needed a panelist. I didn’t want the “So WHERE are you now…? Oh…” conversations that came from people I knew.
I stopped calling people I knew in hopes of doing research. They had grad assistants who needed coauthors. I had an asshole out here who said co-authorship was a sign of weakness. Every time I picked up the phone to see if someone wanted to work on research (the academic equivalent of “hanging out”), I felt like a guy with a fucking cup in his hand, bugging people for loose change outside of a Pizza Hut.
I explained most of this, or as much as I could verbalize at the time. He just shook his head.
“The hell is wrong with you? NOBODY should have been working as hard as you were when you were. People LIKE working with you. You’ve done more than your share of dragging people’s asses out of the fire. You’re not a leech. And, for chrissake, you’re going to let THESE people make you feel uncomfortable? What the fuck?”
He was right, but he was moving up as sequence head, a couple of our friends had become associate deans. Shouldn’t I be doing shit like that?
“You have tenure now. That’s a license to do what you want to do. You don’t HAVE TO write all sorts of papers. I’m not. I’m working on books and trying to fix curriculum so my students can have a better experience. It’s what I want to do. You fucking HATE meetings and bullshit like that. Don’t do what other people expect. Do what you want.”
Over the course of the week, I’d had varying versions of this conversation with other friends. The now-associate deans who were being pulled from pillar to post. The friends at big state schools who were happy but haggard in their new lives as administrators. These were their choices, their lives. It wasn’t what I wanted, but it was fine for them.
Even for a few of them, it wasn’t really fine. A number of my former professors and colleagues had seen my random Facebook posts about my various hobbies: the car, the furniture, the dog stuff. When I mentioned working on a dresser, one of my former professors (a guy I view as the pinnacle of the field) got this look on his face.
It wasn’t the condescension I had feared or the dismissive nod I had expected.
It was envy. The term “hobby” hadn’t entered his life for quite some time.
Every conversation had built to this moment. I knew my friends were right, but it didn’t hit home until Scott said it.
He was more than a friend. He was better than family. He was a pal.
Friends for me are rare and yet important. They are there and help a ton.
Family can be great help, as I’ve found over the years with my parents, or a real pain in the balls, as I’ve figured out dealing with a self-absorbed family member from out of state.
Pals are rare because they can find you when you can’t find yourself. They want to be there when it’s dark and lonely and you don’t know what will happen next.
Pals don’t tell you what to do, but rather tell you what you already know and allow it to ring so true you can’t miss it. They make you smile as you shake off what troubles you and get back into the game.
We settled up at the bar and started heading back toward the elevators. Scott spotted a guy he needed to touch base with. He extended a hand and when we shook goodbye, he pulled me in for a “dude hug.”
“Call me when you get back and we’ll work on something. Stop hiding.”