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'We Need To Hang Out' Aims To Remedy Struggles Some People Have To Connect

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

How many friends do you have? I'm talking about really good friends. Now think about how long it's been since you spent time with them. When Boston Globe reporter Billy Baker's editor assigned him to write a story about friends back in 2017, he discovered that he had lost touch with nearly all of his. And like many men around his age - he was about 40 at the time - he found himself pretty lonely. Researchers told him that even before the pandemic hit, Americans were becoming increasingly isolated from their friends. And men are doing way worse than women. So in his new book, Billy Baker writes about his attempts to reconnect with his friends. The book is called "We Need To Hang Out."

BILLY BAKER: I'd be perfectly happy if nobody gets more than five pages into this book and they're like, I know what I need to do. I need to hang out with my friends.

MARTIN: And if you do keep reading, you'll realize it can be more complicated than that - and more dire. Responsible for many ailments, both mental and physical, loneliness is killing us.

BAKER: Isolation, even living alone - all these, like, little things, can make you more susceptible to basically everything you don't want. When I wrote this article, people wrote to me - and emails came by the thousands, these really confessional emails. They weren't so much interested in the information about the cancer. They wanted to know about the cure. I wanted to know about the cure for myself, you know? I wanted to know how to be friends with my friends in this period in life - you know, this broad period we call middle age - where there's so many other things begging for your attention that friends, you know, wasn't one of the priorities when I woke up every morning.

MARTIN: Your friend Rory, for example, had up and moved to Vienna, Austria, and never told you about (laughter).

BAKER: Never mentioned it. I write this article. I send it to him. I'd mentioned him in the article. And it was like, oh, this - you're not going to be happy to hear this. But I forgot to tell you, I moved to Vienna. And this was a guy I would have considered my best friend in the world. And so - you know, I did a lot of things on this journey. And the first thing I did was chase him to Vienna. It felt very...

MARTIN: This is so dramatic, Billy, though. Like, you could have started with a FaceTime call.

BAKER: I mean, I guess. But I was just still in shock at the whole thing. And - plus, you know, I've never been to Vienna. So you know, like, I hop on a plane. It felt very, like, romantic comedy scene as I'm, like, dashing to the airport and like, what am I doing? I'm getting on this plane to save a relationship with a guy. Like, this is new territory for me. But you know what? Like, that was the beginning of a pattern that held throughout this entire journey, where just showing intent and showing a teeny little bit of vulnerability, like not a cool-guy move, it always led to the best places. And he will never move to another country without telling me again.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Can we talk a little bit about that cool-guy thing and what's embedded in that? While you don't use these words in the book, you do seem to suggest that some of that bias against intimacy is a bias against behaviors that are seen as feminine. Is that fair to say?

BAKER: I think it is fair to say. One of the things that I kept hearing right from the beginning of this is how women are so much better than men, and all the data seem to support it. Women are better at friendship than men. And it was like, OK. Like, why? Like, what is it that they do? And women are more willing to touch. They're more willing to call each other when they're feeling down. They're able to keep up relationships over the phone in ways that men are not.

So it's actually a very interesting, fundamental difference in the way men interact versus the way women interact. Men talk shoulder-to-shoulder, and women talk face-to-face. So immediately, like, male friendships are built - usually built around activity. You know, we're doing something together. Like, a friend of mine referred to golf as his way of finding something to do with his hands while he talks to his friend about, you know, what's going on at home.

MARTIN: Through the book, it's you setting this intention to cultivate friendships - trying to nurture old ones, also start new ones. You start sort of an unofficial fraternity with a wider group of guys. Some of them you know really well, some you don't. Can you talk about that moment when you've invited this group - what is it, 12 guys? - very intentional number...

BAKER: Yes.

MARTIN: ...To this place, this barn you've secured to begin this regular hangout thing. How did you explain what you were doing there when you got up in the barn and said, welcome...

BAKER: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...Dudes?

BAKER: Well, I mean, the idea was, all right, I'm going to try and build a new tribe. I'm going to try and connect these guys that I've met. You know, maybe they're through my kids, maybe wherever and I felt a little bit of a spark. Like, OK, we could be friends. So I brought them all together. Maybe it didn't have to be this dramatic, but I invited them all. I sent them all sort of invitations, didn't tell them what was up. I kind of laid out this whole journey I was on. The energy in that room was that like, yeah, we could also use someone to hang out with on a Wednesday night. It wasn't a slight on our friendships of the past to say we need a better daily friend life in the present.

MARTIN: But you do ponder whether just the hangout is sufficient. You go through this part of the book where you think you need a purpose, a task - that it's not enough to just sit around and, you know, shoot the bull, so to speak. You have to be physically doing something - shoulder-to-shoulder, right?

BAKER: Yeah. For a while, this Wednesday night crew was going gangbusters. And then it just - it was like, what are - we're just going to get together in this barn and do what - like, talk about our feelings? I use this phrase in the book, velvet hooks. There are these things that connect people. And they're soft. You're not locked in iron - the weekly golf game, the fantasy football, the bar trivia, the book clubs, the sports teams, whatever it is, you know. They're the excuse to get together. And then, you know, while that activity is going on, maybe that's where the magic happens.

And it's funny. What really brought everyone together - a guy came up with the idea, let's build, like, a dirt BMX track like every little kid's dream. By simply agreeing that that's what we were going to do, it gave the group a purpose. And we haven't done it. But we do get together...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

BAKER: We do talk about how we're going to do it. And then, you know, we...

MARTIN: That's so interesting, though. The dream is enough. The dream is the velvet hook.

BAKER: But it works. It works for us. And at this point, we have become good enough friends where the awkwardness is gone. And I love it. I live for it.

MARTIN: Billy Baker - his new memoir is called "We Need To Hang Out." Billy, thanks so much for talking with us.

BAKER: Thank you, Rachel. I enjoyed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHY CAN'T WE BE FRIENDS")

WAR: (Singing) Ooh, ooh, ooh... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.