Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Us Tarzan, Them Jane

Well, look at this. One of my Chronicle stories from the late 1980s was reprinted as a "Chronicle Classic" in September while we were out of the country.

There's a short story by John Galsworthy called, I think, "Quality," about a shoemaker who dies in utter penurious obscurity. There is almost nothing to say about him except -- and I believe this becomes a kind of refrain -- "He made a good boot." Indeed, the point seems to be that he made his boots rather better than they needed to be, given the reasonable prices he charged and his ignorance of what we would today call marketing.

There is pride in craft, even at its most obscure and disposable. Now, I reread this story from back in the day.

I made a good boot!

This story (excerpted here) was published in The Chronicle on Aug. 15, 1988. The IBC members celebrated the group's 25th anniversary in San Francisco recently, visiting SBC Park for the Giants-Mets series -- and sampling its beers, which they pronounced "way overpriced."


Michael Robertson/Sunday, September 12, 2004

As far as the four members of the International Baseball Conspiracy are concerned, friendship means never having to say you're thirsty.

Yes, they drink beer as an integral part of their endless journey through the great cities and the great ballparks of America. They drink beer before, during and after the baseball games they have flown great distances to watch. They drink it slowly and thoughtfully, like connoisseurs.

Mike Phillips is positively dreamy when he recalls the beer hawkers wandering through the stands in Milwaukee County Stadium in 1982.

"Four kinds of beer," he says. "Plus bratwurst. Beer and brat."

This season Phillips, Pat Miles, Tom Olkowski and Ron Schukar made the Bay Area the site of their yearly rendezvous because they liked the look of the A's.

Olkowski and Schukar live in Denver, Phillips in Bozeman, Mont., and Miles in San Francisco. This is the 10th summer the four have met in a big- league city. They like baseball. They like beer. They love each other. These trips are part of the care and feeding of their friendship.

Mostly they play it for laughs, not encounter-group anguish. Four days in a large American city. Four days of baseball. Four days devoted to sheer bumptious fun, to cultivating "a little of the little boy in us," says Schukar.

Each year, Phillips' wife sends along small gifts for each of the group, and this year she included a letter in which she announced that IBC really stands for "Incessant Beer Consumption."

"Our wives are all supportive of this," Olkowski says. "Even Pat's. Before the divorce."

If anything, the friends feel their trips make their other relationships better. Olkowski is a clinical psychologist. A steady stream of men passes through his office with the same complaint. They are successful. They may have good relationships with women, but they have no male friends. And they are lonely.

Simply put, American men aren't very good at being friends on anything other than a superficial level. They may connect at work. But, as Miles puts it, "once the project evaporates, the friendship evaporates."

It isn't about drinking, really. It's about gratitude for something special.
The high point of each excursion is "dress-up night" on Saturdays, this year at Bix in San Francisco. They put on their best clothes, go to a fine restaurant and talk honestly about the events of the past year and their hopes for the year upcoming.

"We talk about the painful things," Olkowski says.

"It's not enough just to play out adolescent locker-room fantasies of buddyhood," Schukar says. The chemistry of male friendship -- "beer, lies and dirty stories" -- may never change. "These are all things we should never give up. But there has to be sensitivity, too. The problem is so many guys can't get beyond locker-room talk."

The lesson of the IBC is simple, he says. In matters of friendship, "people assume a lot. It's like since we have the equipment to communicate, we'll communicate. Since we have the equipment to be friends, we'll continue to be friends. In this period of time, we are all so busy and life is so hectic, friendship has changed. You have to work at it. You don't have to go halfway across the country to nourish friendship. But you do have to be willing to say, 'I like you, I had a good time with you, let's do that again.' "
Most American men like to play it so cool they're left out in the cold. "Risk," Olkowski says for the third or fourth time. "Friendship is more than luck."

P.S. for today, which is November 10, 2004. So I'm saying this to the guys I haven't seen in a long long time, not since back in the last century and in some cases far longer: Bruce, Trum, Schuyler, Jerry, Al, Tommy, Lowell, Buck, even Bob, you crazy goat farmer:

I like you. We had more good times than I can easily remember. It's been a while since I said this, more than a sentence ago. I like you.

And for the guys in the league and at work and some of you I just somehow ended up knowing... Oh, I like you, too. I guess I owe you a drink even if I don't owe you a drink.

Which makes sense to men, as much as anything does.


G Pabst said...

About that drink...

Next Thursday is it?

And I'll buy you one, too.

Dr.Tee said...

Michael, I have been trying to track you down for a while now. Congratulations on "Your Boot". The IBC is still at it, just completed our 32nd annual trip and would like to chat with you about it.

Tom Olkowski, Ph.D.