Error: I'm afraid this is the first I've heard of a "comments" flavoured Blosxom. Try dropping the "/+comments" bit from the end of the URL.

Sun, 21 Jun 2009

Activity Buddies

Many activities are more fun with companions. Sex, obviously. Generally we enjoy sex involving a fuck buddy more than a solo experience. Generally, but not always. And that's the point.

For maximum enjoyment, the personality of your activity specific buddy is critical, particularly if the activity involves a long journey that will lock the bond between buddies over some period of time. Marriage takes this buddy locking to an extreme, but I don't want to talk about marriage. My interest here is in shorter lived partnerships, particularly between two guys undertaking some outdoorsy pursuit, such as paddling, hiking, or cycling. I have lots of experience with buddies in these three pursuits

There are several important qualities that makes for a good outdoor activity buddy. For example, it's important that the buddy has some skill at the activity in question. A buddy with no skill is one's student, one with too much is your teacher, and those are totally different relationships than the usual peer buddy.

But skill, although of some importance, is secondary. In my opinion, foremost is a level headed, basically calm demeanor, with an ability to think first about the project at hand, putting their individual needs and desires second. This is hard to find in other people as it is hard to cultivate in ourselves, but I think this quality is paramount in an expedition, doubly so where life threatening situations could arise.

Guide books say that outdoor activities are safest with a minimum of two participants. If one partner is injured, the other can go for help. But that assumes that the uninjured partner is nearby to see that the other is injured, and that he or she wouldn't panic and would be able to successfully go for help. A flaky partner can make a bad situation worse. Better to be alone in the wilderness with a sprained ankle than accompanied by some idiot who would abandon you, or perhaps get himself injured trying to help.

A somewhat neutral characteristic is if you are friends with the guy. I've had some great activity buddies that I've downright disliked as people. The word "buddy" seems to imply friendship, but that's not necessarily the case. There's always a bit of competition between activity buddies. Friendship and competition conflict. You want a good balance. Too much cut-throat competition between buddies can jeopardize team oriented decisions and create a poisoned atmosphere in which having fun is impossible. Too much friendship can jeopardize individual achievement -- and is simply gay.

All in all, I prefer activity buddies to be friends, but not close friends.

Finally, a quality activity buddy needs to be able to shoot the shit with decent skill. Activities usually involve long periods of travel together. If the other guy can't hold up his end of a guy-style conversation, those long periods can become painfully boring.

In my cycling, hiking, and paddling I think of three specific individuals that recently have been my companion in each of these activities. These men rate differently on my four pointed rubric of activity skill, team spirit, banter, and friendship. Thus, they make good case studies for buddy characteristics. Rather than use their names, I'll call them CB, PB, and HB, for cycling, paddling, and hiking respectively.

The first I will consider, CB, was my cycling buddy for my recent bike ride across the USA. It's not that I dislike the guy, but his personality is somewhat taxing. Here's an example of a buddy that's less then a good friend. He can be abusive, crude, argumentative and overcompetitive. Of course, many men possess these negative traits, and they don't really get in the way of the activity. One negative trait that CB possesses that does threaten to sour the relationship is his "control freak" tendencies. You want your buddy to tell you that your fly is down, but not which hand you should use to zip it back up.

Control freekiness is somewhat to be expected in passionate individuals that are involved with activities that require attention to detail. Most outdoor pursuits are like this. Thus, we take the bad with the good. But CB's control freakiness extends outside his passion for cycling and reaches into everything. If you let him, he won't just tell you how to ride your bike, he'll tell you how to eat, walk, tie your shoes, and think.

There's a second factor that degrades my relationship with CB. I'm seven years older than him and we were both bicycle racers. I raced in the 80s, he raced in the 90s. I knew him when he was a beginner racer and I was in top form. At that time our relationship had some teacher/student aspects. But as time passed, he's gained just about as much experience as me. Candidly, I'd say that today he's the better bike rider. Part of this is his youth. Seven years equals roughly 7 heartbeats per minute at max effort. But not all of it is the age difference. CB is a quality rider and may have been better than me at his prime than I was at mine.

The problem is, he cares about how fast he is, and continually wants to test himself against me -- as if he still needs to prove he's become a better rider. This combines with his control freakiness to inspire him to advise me ad nauseum on points of form. Worse yet, his need to incessantly give his opinion extends well beyond cycling decisions. His suggestions are always correct as stated; mine are always modified by him.

CB didn't graduate college, but is a software engineer. He knows that I teach college and have an advanced degree. Sometimes I wonder if this makes him additionally competitive with me.

It's all so tiring.

Fortunately, the relationship seems to function. I accomodate his personality so long as it doesn't threaten the big picture. Our skill levels on the bike are close enough, regardless of who gets to the city limit sign first. We can and do ride together when necessary. And deep down I believe that CB would do the right thing if the chips were down. Of course, I do have a modicum of doubt on that point. Not that CB would ever do anything intentionally irresponsible that would put me in harms way, or would refuse to help me, but his competitiveness makes me wonder about his commitment to our joint enterprise. I wonder. That's the extent of it. Deep down, I do trust him.

Still, however small the doubt may be, if you doubt your buddy will be there for you when you need him, that doubt will affect decisions and lessen the experience.

All that said, CB is quite good at banter when his control freekiness doesn't seep through. Here's an example.

In a cafe in Walla Walla, WA, CB starts chatting up this nice looking woman sitting outside reading a book. He's not chatting in any predatory, womanizing way -- more just the general getting to know you chat CB spreads around liberally wherever he goes. I watch the two chat. She appears to be 40 something, sandy blond hair, trim build. Really, a rather sexy lady, in my humble heterosexual opinion.

Later on, about twenty miles east, when CB tells me about the conversation, I discover from him that she was a professor of philosophy at a nearby college, that she's getting into bike riding, and that she has some spare bedrooms where, she told him, we would be welcome to stay.

CB declines the offer of lodging, and anything else that might have been implied. When he recounts this to me later, the reason he gives for declining was that "her tits were too saggy". CB added that he also learned that she had been into horseback riding previously, so his horse-sized manhood would probably do the job for her, but now that she had switched to bikes she might be more amenable to men with small dicks like me.

"Do you think I could get her to lick my sore butt?" I ask.

"Given she's an academic, you and her should get along fine on that angle," he answers, "but then again, with your lack of depth perception, it'd be dicey whether you could reliably kiss butt rather than brown nosing."

"I'm just concerned that you'd jeopardize optimum camping arrangements because of someones tit firmness," I say. "What about that cute girl we passed when we rode into town. When you asked her for directions, she gave a rather vague answer. I would have pressed for additional details. Was something wrong with her tits? They seemed fine to me"

"Too small," he said

"I'm detecting a disturbing trend, CB. Maybe in the future you might consult with me on these critical decisions.

He shrugs and we ride on.

My latest paddling buddy, PB, isn't like CB at all.

PB and I are the same age and have similar educations. We are very similar guys. One glaring difference between us is that he's not married and I'm married -- to his sister.

Undertaking activities with one's brother-in-law is not usually done voluntarily. Normally, one's wife makes the match, saying something like: "Why don't you go paddling with my brother? He likes boats." This doesn't usually work out. The classic depiction of this catastrophe is in the wonderful book and film, A River Runs Through It.

Surprisingly, it did work out with PB and I. Probably this is because we are so evenly matched other ways. Our paddling skills are well matched and that's important; we paddle tandem canoe. Tandem partnerships are difficult balancing acts but somehow we manage it. There is a subtle cooperative interplay where each partner accommodates the other. Needless to say, CB would be a rotten tandem canoe partner. PB is an excellent one.

PB is also a reliable, steady guy who I have no doubt would be there for me in the clutch. First of all, I'm married to his sister. If anything happens to me on his watch, he'd be in the doghouse with sis. But beyond that motivation, he really is a sensible guy. There have been several dicey situations on the water where I've seen him make good choices under pressure -- choices that were more about the success of the joint enterprise than about his own agenda. He's head and shoulders above CB in this regard. I don't have the slightest doubt about him.

Banter wise, PB is adequate, but somewhat constrained because of the brother-in-law relationship. He'll make movie and song references that are witty and keep things light, but he'll craft very few double-entendres and absolutely no gratuitous raunch that CB specializes in. On the plus side, PB and I can have serious, thoughtful conversations. One example. When paddling with several other boats and entering a narrow stretch of water, PB might say: "OK, now, let's not get our kayaks in a bunch."

And I like the guy. He may also be my brother-in-law, but I'd consider him a friend. Not a close friend, but a guy I wouldn't mind drinking a beer with.

My hiking buddy, HB, is the best of the lot. First of all, I totally trust the guy to make considered, sensible choices should things come askew in the back country. Part of this is because he's more experienced than me and, as he says: good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. But the bulk of my evidence in this aspect is from direct observation. As with PB, HB has consistently shown that his motives were driven by the success of the shared enterprise, balanced against risks and other relevant factors. The man is downright brilliant making choices in the wilderness. I'd trust him at the other end of my rope, any day.

Fortunately, he's not so much more experienced and skillful at hiking and mountaineering that our relationship is slanted completely to teacher-student. There's no question he's taught me a lot, but I brought considerable experience to the table myself. Over time, our skill sets have converged.

In a sense, my relationship with HB is the reverse of my relationship with CB. HB is the jaded old timer and I'm the enthusiastic tyro. I hope HB doesn't view me as being competitive. I'm certainly not a control freak with him as I'll tend to defer to his good judgment unless I have a good reason to contradict him, usually because I have information he does not posses. Even better, he listens to me. There is no rancor should I make a superior suggestion.

HB is a limited-scope friend. He's definitely a friend, but not a close friend. I see him during winter hiking season (Nov-Mar) and not much else. This allows us to spend the rest of the year accumulating our supplies of stories and banter to run through during the long drives to and from the trailhead. HB is a good bullshitter, can be serious, can be raunchy. The only flaw I can find in his patter is a tendency to be a bit of a word nazi. He has a lot of pet peeves. Fortunately, over the years I've mapped these out and can steer around them or bait my hook with them, as the case may be.

Now that I've given my opinion of CB, PB, and HB, it's only fair that I turn the lens on myself. How do I rate as a buddy? Of course, it's not really possible for me to do a self evaluation. For the most accurate results, you'd have to ask the other guys what they thought of me.

Undaunted by the subjectivity barrier, let me take a wing at guessing what they would say should they be writing about me.

First of all, I think I'm excellent at banter. Maybe too excellent. Sometimes I don't know when to shut up. I remember one time when HB was taken ill on the trail. We had to abandon, mid hike. We dropped packs and were bee-lining to the car. For some reason I wanted to talk about the equinox and the location of the sun. HB could barely keep his stomach from heaving as he walked, white from the flu. He didn't want to talk; he wanted to be in bed. Sometimes I need to shut up.

In the friendship category, I think things are mostly symmetric. I don't think any of these guys value my companionship more or less than I value theirs.

Regarding skill, I'm a detail oriented person. This makes me a little obsessive compulsive and sometimes slows me down when I need to get a move on. I know this has annoyed HB and CB several times. But I'm working on it. Practice makes perfect and as my skills improve I spend less time on unnecessary motion.

Finally, how conscious am I of the joint endeavor? Do I overcompete?

I think that sometimes my competitiveness shines through a little too much in paddling, especially if my tandem partner doesn't "care" as much as me. PB's of the past probably felt unwelcome on my boat at times. Not so with my current PB (although you need to ask him to be sure).

As far as being able to do the right thing in the clutch, I think I'd do OK and would be worthy of the trust placed in me by others. I've taken wilderness First Aid. I've lead a crew of Boy Scouts through Philmont with not a single injury. I've coached bike racing. I've seen a lot of things and made a lot of mistakes from bad judgment. And as HB says, bad judgment is the source of good judgment.