I met Dan during freshman year of high school. He and my closest friend, Dave, had gone to a different junior high than I did in our hometown near Boston. Right about the time Dave introduced us, Dan and I started making sports bets.
Many mornings in homeroom we would gamble quarters on things like who'd be the top scorers in the NBA that night — we were years ahead of fantasy basketball. We also started an annual tradition of placing bets on each and every college football bowl game — now numbering about three dozen each winter — through a draft of teams. Most years, he picked Boston College and Notre Dame. I always tried to lock up Nebraska and Michigan.
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Now, more than 25 years later, through college, travel, marriage, kids and, a decade ago, Dave's life-threatening bout of lymphoma, Dan and I continue to call each other every December to place those bets. What started at 50 cents a game became locked in at $5 each years ago. We closely track our results throughout bowl season, but most years we don't get around to paying each other for months. If we don't end up seeing each other in person, we just hold onto the previous season's scoresheet and tack the deficit onto the next year's tally. (Full disclosure: I started this year's games down $20). What it's really all about is that phone call.
Like many married middle-aged men, in sitcoms and in real life, the adults I socialize with most are the parents of my kids' pals, or my wife's close friends who, unlike most of mine, live here in New York City. Dan and I think of each other as close, but I was once close with a number of other friends who I sometimes wish I was still in touch with. But we don't have bowl games to bet on. Our tradition gives Dan and me a reason to connect, at least once a year.
Men tend to tease our wives that, unlike them, we don't "need" to check in with our friends as often as they do. We know we're "good," we say; we don't need to put in the time. But meanwhile, many of our old friendships fade and our new friendships are not exactly what you'd call tight. At a New Year's Day brunch at the home of one of my son's friends, I was surprised to run into a guy who's a regular in an off-and-on poker game I've played in for more than a decade. He was with his wife and 19-month-old daughter. Which is all lovely, except I'd had no idea that he was married or that he had a child.
Why Our Friendships Matter
Research by Geoffrey Grief, author of Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships (Oxford, 2008), is consistent with my experience. Grief, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, has found that while women rely on friends to share confidences and offer support, men seek friends who can provide escape. Groups of guys can spend weekends together every year for decades and never bring up the financial, personal or health crises in their lives. Instead, they use those gatherings as a treasured distraction from their concerns — then they share their real problems with their wives or female friends.
Circumstances make a difference, too, of course. Men are more likely than women, research shows, to allow geographic distance to interrupt their connections, although sociologists have spotted a trend of men in their late 40s seeking to revive what Grief calls "rusted" friendships.
Eric Klinenberg, author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone (Penguin, 2012), recently explained to The Atlantic Wire that people who live alone — he calls them "singletons" – tend to lead more active social lives as they age. "They are more likely than married people," he says, "to spend time with friends and neighbors, more likely to volunteer in civic organizations and more likely to go out at night and spend time in bars, restaurants, cafes and other public places where strangers meet."
We are all social animals and there is increasing evidence that our connections, whether familial, social or professional, are crucial to our long-term health. One study of Australian adults found that, over 10 years, older people with large circles of friends were 22 percent less likely to die than those with smaller support systems. The more friends we can cultivate and maintain, it seems, the better.
And so, on Monday night, I'll be cheering for Alabama to beat Notre Dame in the BCS championship game because I drafted the Crimson Tide this year. Sitting beside me, though, my 12-year-old son, Benjamin, will be cheering for Notre Dame, because he picked the Fighting Irish in a draft with his new friend, Daniel. The boys are in seventh grade and it's their first year of bowl bets. Daniel's a nice kid and I'm pleased that, while he may not realize it now, he's probably going to be Benjamin's friend for life.
No matter Monday's final score, we're both winners.