There were beers. Many of them, as best I recall. And music. A lot of it. Pub life in Hobart had not succumbed to electronic assault by poker machines and FoxSports. It seemed every bar played host to a different act each night, and we set off to drink the town never knowing if midnight might find us roaring like drunken bears at a Cold Chisel cover band, or quietly contemplating a flight of Tasmanian whiskies while a single guitarist treated us, and us alone, to her extensive back-catalogue of lesbian death ballads. Young fathers for the working week, we ate well, drank hugely and stayed up way past our bedtimes. When it was done, and our flights back to the mainland were called, we agreed it had been a most excellent adventure and we must do it again.
That was nearly 15 years ago. We never did.
No tragedy intervened. No death or circumstance, unforeseen. Unless it was entirely foreseeable that the ever greater weight of work and family responsibilities would press all the freedom and irresponsible joy of those days out of our lives. We were married, happily, to women whose careers were every bit as demanding as our own and in the case of my wife, much more so. Increasingly it just seemed untenable to even contemplate loading them up with another shift of child-minding after they had finished 50 or 60 hours of their own high-pressure work week.
The boy’s weekend was truly a lost weekend.
This is true for a lot of men these days. Email chases us into the wee hours. The office is a mouse click away. Helicopter parenting finds us on the stick seven days a week. Our wives work as hard, if not harder than us. And our friends? Our mates? Those brothers we chose in our younger years? What becomes of them?
Henry David Thoreau knew exactly what becomes of them. “The language of Friendship is not words but meanings,” he wrote. But friendship also requires more time “than poor busy men can usually command”.
Dude had our number, more than a hundred years ago. Famous for his determination to live alone in a small cabin in the woods, he better understood the ties that bind us after sundering his own connections to other men. A philosopher-survivalist, who rubbed up hard against nature out there in the trees, he had a poet’s love of words, but knew well that men do not always need them. The civilised world is a construction of words, a prison of sorts, made by the naming and ordering of things, and for men to be free and most true to themselves they sometimes have to turn away from all that. They have to turn to each other and their shared understandings.
This isn’t to load up the end-of-season footy club trip, or a boy’s weekend of fishing and farting, with a weight of significance it cannot hope to bear. It’s just to make the potentially dangerous and politically fraught suggestion that sometimes men need to get together - alone - and blow off steam. That steam can build to white-hot pressure and without a release valve to kick open you will, eventually, inevitably, find yourself exploding.
From day to day, we might let the pressure off in the gym if we’re good, at the pub if we’re not, but it will still creep up on us, edging towards some sort of red line with every unpaid bill, with each unreasonable demand at work, with the increasing grit and friction of simply living under the same roof as other human beings no matter how much we love them and they us.
Having an escape, having something to look forward to that doesn’t involve constraint, responsibilities, the frustrations and compromises of everyday life, that can mean the difference between feeling as though the world is ploughing you under inch by inch and being able to shrug it off when you take a hit. Why make this escape with other prisoners of modern life? Why not a family holiday, or a weekend away with your partner, just the two of you? Because as great and necessary as those things can be, they don’t allow us to speak in the language of male friendship. The meanings beyond words.
My friend Andrew is a man of similar vintage, with the shared experiences of teenage kids and the exhausting business of chasing a dollar to pay for them. He also married well, but has made a commitment to just a couple of days each year when he doesn’t have to be the grown up. He goes bush with a dozen mates, ranging in age from early twenties to mid-forties. They camp, they hunt, they fish, they drink a lot of beer. They escape.
“Our boy’s weekends,” he says, “are well planned at least eight months in advance. We juggle dates and sometimes the venues, as we have guys from all points of the compass. Some of the blokes, they go batshit crazy. It’s about the only escape they have from their normal world.”
For Andrew, though, the most valuable aspect is just the time and the space to talk.
“I’ll tell you, it’s fucking invaluable. Yeah, you might have a bit of a bitch about the other half, it might be about work, money, house, kids, bills and Christ knows what else. De-stressing is not about just the physical. If you want to go deep, have a look at the advent of the Men’s Shed thing, why Beyond Blue has ramped up. I’m not saying that boys’ weekends are the cure and I’m also not saying that all boys’ weekends must be feral. But regular outings sure do help balance my books.”
The Men’s Shed movement, a very Australian mental health initiative, ties together over a thousand sheds where men can get together to work on the sort of projects men used to work on together when we all had sheds to retreat into in the back yard. They’re a lot more civilised than feral road trips and camping weekends, but the intent is the same – to offer a space where men can get together and take a bit of the load off. It’s a formalised system of providing the support and friendship that once upon a time we simply did for ourselves.
Those lost weekends have not disappeared entirely. There are still plenty of blokes finding the time to strike out on their own, if only for a couple of days a year. In asking around while writing this story, I wasn’t surprised to find plenty of men like me, who’d let the friendships of their glory days fall away, but I was taken aback to find many more who quietly preserved just a small measure of space and time to maintain them. Some went bush. Others surfed. Some got together once a year to play video games, or smoke cigars and drink whiskies. And those who did always returned to the world better men for it.
I really have to get back to Tasmania.
Men's Health Week runs from June 13 - 19. For more info check out menshealthweek.org.au