Monday, November 7, 2011

On Male Bonding

(disclaimer: anecdotal)

So came last day of exams in the Spring for a small group of us who'd become friends during the preceding months of the term. We just completed the dreaded CS 245 exam and were finally feeling the rapid dissipation of end-of-term stress.

Time to celebrate! Initial suggestions of wild strip club parties and champagne showers quickly economized into a modest lunch at the local Pho joint. No matter; the spirits were high and the bellies empty - Pho it is, then!

After what I remember as a very large and excellent meal, Josh, Ir Win, Timmy and I slouch around the table feeling content albeit satiated to the point of bloating.

Josh picks up a small red pepper from the condiment dish and gleams at the rest of us with his shrewd grin: "Yo, I dare one of you guys to eat one of these. $5."

Timmy is the first to respond: "Pass; can't deal with spicy food."

Ir Win smiles lazily and returns the challenge: "How about you do it?"

I jump in to raise the stakes: "You know what, there's enough of them in that dish for everyone. We should all go for one. LET'S DO IT!!!!"

All are up for the new idea on the table except Timmy. After a few minutes of jest and coaxing, he remains enthusiastic of watching us do it but refuses to attempt it himself. We give up on him and get ready for the fun.

"How are we doing this? Just the tip and work off the rest slowly?"

"No, fuck it. All in one bite! Doing it live." I urge in excitement.

We pick up a red pepper each and bite off the stems in unison.

I prided myself on having high-tolerance of spicy food. After chewing the paste-like mixture of pepper seed and skin for a few seconds, it dawns on me: I am about to be humbled.

I feel the familiar burning sensation in my mouth. Slowly at first but building steadily toward a searing furnace, biting and caustic. Beads of warm sweat sprout at my brows. I feel the quickening pulse at my jugular vein. My face burns, too. I rest my elbow on the table and my forehead in my palm. A thousand branding needles throb between my tongue and the roof of my mouth. "Alright, this is kinda hot," I allow myself to confess aloud as I hear a faint ringing in my head.

I realize then that opening your mouth and gulping for air doesn't do anything; neither does sips of water - but we humor ourselves with the instinctual acts anyway. Josh is hunched against the wall. Ir Win wears a dazed expression, staring into space. Timmy gloats in his corner, offering nothing but wide smiles for our condition.

After what I could surmise only in retrospect as five minutes or so, I feel the pain gradually dulling and look around the table. Suddenly, the scene before my eyes struck me as just absolutely hilarious. Before I knew it, I burst into a full-chested, uproarious laughter. Tears fell from my eyes. I could almost feel the cramps in my stomach. Laughter is truly infectious. For the next minute or so, we could not stop each other from laughing. I did not know why it was funny and why we were laughing and kept laughing. Maybe it was the pained looks on people's faces that we didn't have a chance to snicker over while we were each on our own in pain. Maybe it was the absurdity of the situation. Maybe it was the absurdity of laughing over something so absurd. Maybe anything. We certainly neglected etiquette for the fellow diners at other tables: I hoped they didn't care - because we surely did not at the time.

After leaving the restaurant, friendly banter returned to remind Timmy on what he had missed out on. I walked quietly, but with a mild high from the laughs (and perhaps from the capsaicin) and reflected on the experience.

I suppose this is how guys like to bond. This is of course a mild and tame example, but the basic elements remain: we like to seek out adventures and risks together. If something sounds like a possibly stupid idea? "YES let's do it, WOOOOOOOOO". (We don't lose all of our sanity in this process, obviously; most of the time if there's a reasonable chance of someone being injured, ideas are quick to be vetoed)

More than this, I felt that male bonding comes down to sharing an experience together: particularly in terms of feeling a specific set of emotions: that great rush from adrenaline, the bearing of physical pain (although it could be emotional, too, but that's less common), the joy of laughing over a cause that is exclusively understood by the people involved. You know what it felt like. You just experienced it. Here's someone that's just experienced the same thing and felt the same things as you did.

It was seldom, but for brief moments in that afternoon I felt like I was among old friends.

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