Auditioning for Friends

Before my blockbuster turn as the ageless angel Clarence Odbody in our local community theatre presentation of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” (see: Pneumonia and some help from friends) it’s a little known secret that I had an audition for Friends. No, check that. I had an audition for friends, but it was well before the TV show ever came along.

In my discussion of taking control of a situation and changing my circle of friends back in high school (see: “Already Gone”?), I kind of breezed past a point that is worthy of an expanded discussion. I may have made it sound like I snapped my fingers and voila – a new batch of friends. It didn’t happen like that.

Growing up in a small town in the ’60s and ’70s, a person gets to know everyone. My hometown was about 5,000 people and so it was fairly common to at least be able to recognize nearly everyone in town. The Catholic grade school that I went to was too small to serve the large contingent of Catholics in town. Instead of being a typical first through eighth grade. if it were a normal elementary school, I went to Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Grade School for second through sixth grade. I can go through my yearbooks now yet and tell you which kids went to Holy Name and which kids went to “public school” in my graduating class of 275 or so.

The guys that I hung around with starting in junior high were a mixture of Holy Namers and public schoolers. The scheduling gods were not too sharp in putting me in the same classes with some of these guys.

I did my best to be my own person, but eventually, I was too much of a follower, too eager to please people who weren’t ever going to be pleased with me and I wasn’t making good decisions.

So as I intimated in “Already Gone,” in my junior year of high school, I found that it was time to get new friends. I stopped hanging around with the guys that I had always been with and tried catching on with multiple groups of other people. Since I didn’t have as much history with the other people, it was hard for me to decide who should be “my tribe.” There were guys that I knew who had been, for the most part, Holy Namers, but I just hadn’t hung out with them. But I knew them, interacted with them, and thought they were pretty cool. The feeling was not mutual, however, as the guys that I had been hanging with previously were smart alecks, kind of arrogant at times, and fond of playing fast and loose with rules and laws. So yeah, I had to earn my way into this new group of friends.

I tried to be respectful and indulgent of them, tried to make conversation, and do whatever a 16-year-old does to win new friends. It wasn’t quite clicking on all cylinders yet, but there were signs that “this could be a beautiful friendship.” I wasn’t put off, as I respected their reticence to put their faith in me. Heck, if I was them, I would’ve kept me at arm’s length as well. I look back on one set of circumstances that might have turned the tide. I could be wrong, but, hey, this is my story.

I pulled no punches, I didn’t elbow my way into stories, I listened a lot as their stories centered around shared adventures that I had not been a part of.

One night we were just hanging out. It happened that I saw them walking past my house and I went out to say hi. It was a nice summer night, and as we talked, I found out that they didn’t have much of an agenda for that night. So they just lingered in my front yard, and we eventually sat there, on the grass, and talked all night. As I look back on it now, it had all the elements of a job interview, plus maybe a little bit of dating, and kind of some of the drama with meeting a girlfriend’s family for the first time. What did that night consist of? Guy talk. Riffing on life topics. Talking about movies that we had seen, telling jokes, and verbal sparring. How did I do? I must’ve done ok – from that point on, I was kind of accepted and included in planning and doing stuff. What was my secret? I pulled no punches, I didn’t elbow my way into stories, I listened a lot as their stories centered around shared adventures that I had not been a part of. I laughed when stuff was funny, and I shared things that I thought were funny, or important, or things that might be important for them to know about me if I was going to be included in their circle.

I had to listen. And not just to reply. I had to listen, intently, and remember what I was hearing, because if I just left my wicked, reflexively snarky sense of humor go lift its leg every time I felt the urge to pee out a story, I might have been given the long stare of death and my friendship with these guys would have shriveled on the spot. Another thing that helped is that I truly liked these guys, and I thought that hanging with them would be a mutually beneficial thing for all of us. I managed to thread the needle on a few stories, make them laugh, and some of my rejoinders on top of some of their remarks hit the spot as well. I couldn’t research this like going into a job interview. But I knew that they were all watching me and listening to me – so I had to be authentic, and original, and myself. I didn’t want the “me” of this night becoming a flash in the pan that faded out alongside some dull twit who seemed nothing like the guy that they met in my front yard that night.

As for the parallel with dating, it wasn’t about making anybody swoon with just the right ambiance or meal or movie or a perfectly planned outing. But it’s that “really nice you” that you put on to make a good first impression. I didn’t have to laugh unnecessarily though, as these guys were genuinely funny, without being mean.

My main recollection is that it wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be. I was fortunate in that it was kind of spontaneous, I just dove in and let them see me for who I was. Maybe sometimes we over-rehearse, over-prepare, over-think, over everything to the point of paralysis and inaction. There are plenty of instances where we need to rehearse, prepare and think… but the main thing is we just need to bring the real me and the real you and turn us loose.

Tom Dietzler
Tom Dietzler
Lifelong, proud somewhat strident Wisconsinite, I love my state and love to sing its praises. A bon vivant and raconteur, lover of history, literature and good conversations. Laughter and music are salves that I frequently am applying to my soul. I have spent time (too much) in manufacturing and printing and have found great joy in my current position as director of operations at a large church in the same area where I grew up. Husband to Rhonda and father of two adult children Melanie and Zack, I’m the constant companion of my five-year-old Lab, Oliver, who is my muse to a lot of my stories. I’m a fan of deep conversation and my interests are in learning and gaining wisdom, so in the last few years I have become and less politically vocal, and hopefully more respectful and open-minded. Rhonda and I sold our home in 2018, bought a condo and have traveled a bit more, golfed a bit more and are enjoying life a bit more. If you take the time to get to know me, prepare yourself for an invite to the 30th state to join the union, a gem located in the upper Midwest, full of beautiful scenery formed by the glaciers, with lots of lakes and trees and gorgeous scenery, and the nicest people that you’d ever want to meet.
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Larry Tyler

Great story. I remember the awkwardness of my younger days. I think music helped me the most I went on the road at 16 so by playing drums I always had a voice and a story.
Later in life I learned to listen and helping others became my story. Thank you for sharing such a great story.

Maria Lehtman

Interesting story! Thanks for sharing!

Linda Turner

I can relate, and not just because I too grew up in a small town. We probably all do this on some scale, and your story gave me thoughts to ponder. Perhaps as we age, that ‘filter’ comes off a bit.

Noemi Zarb

Your signature mesh of brooding and humour as you open up on your teenage years will definitely strike many a chord. What struck me most about your piece is the title you chose for it. Clever lead-in to your reference to the sitcom (which incidentally I never watched) and more especially to the masks we put on throughout our lives. Although it is characteristic of adolescence, many people cling to facades they chose to show others for several complex reasons. I feel that we need to question ourselves more deeply about this. Also real friendship sheds all masks. Thank you Tom for sharing.

Maureen Y. Nowicki

I marveled at your words and felt some parallels to your article Tom. I was an awkward girl that grew up in a farming community of 2000 people. You being genuine and spontaneous presented the connection you described as allowing you to be your authentic self and be seen for you. I have a feeling some of those people you may still know to this day. Thanks for the sharing and for keeping it real.

Susan Rooks

Ah, Tom — you took me back to the days of … being a terribly awkward little girl, one who had no idea how to be part of the “popular crowd” that my mother so hoped I would! While the girls were all friendly, we weren’t friends. I didn’t have whatever it took — that star quality — so those formative years were kinda tough.

I did have some friends; don’t get me wrong. But the status of being in that top tier group that was not to be mine. I didn’t even really want to be, but it would have made my mother so happy …

It took a lot of years to realize that her dreams for me were more a reflection of her yearning to be part of something like that.

These days I’m friends with both men and women who seem to think I’m just fine as is. We hang out, we walk our dogs, we network, we live our lives.

I am so glad to see you here — actually, anywhere — and to read your stories that always make me think and feel. You have a lovely gift, Tom!

Aldo Delli Paoli
Aldo Delli Paoli

It can often happen to stop and think. Countless doubts will arise about our existence, our work, our goals. Therefore, the sincere and disinterested friendship acquires an inestimable value, a value capable of completely upsetting the mood of people, turning them from people who exist into people who live.
Often, however, we are more attracted to something material and concrete, without realizing that we will not possess material goods forever. Only feelings, sincere ones, are things that we will possess forever. I noticed, however, that the usual term “friend” is used, but the feeling of friendship is extremely rare.

Jeff Ikler
Jeff Ikler

Nice, as always, Tom. You took me right back to Park Ridge, Illinois – a village? city? town? of some 35,000 people where I grew up. There were about 3800 kids in my high school. It was easy to become part of the Benjamin Moore that colored the walls of our corridors. I eventually found one person I would truly call “friend,” and we still connect to this day. He recently told me that he couldn’t have made it through high school without me. I almost fell off my chair, as he was part of the semi-“in” crowd – popular with the girls and a three-sport letterman. But it was usually me with whom he chose to spend his free time. We connected much like you described sitting with your friends on your front lawn. We shared emotions in a way that most “adult” men wouldn’t. Why is it that as men age, many turn inward, and the talk is reduced to sports and politics?

Laura Mikolaitis

Great story, Tom. I could relate. I attended my 30-year high school reunion last month, and this story brought back some memories. I grew up in a town in Northern NY and went to Catholic school from K-12. So, it was small classes, cliques, and everything in between. I was never in the popular crowd, and I was awkward in my own right. But, I made some good friends there, and although we have all changed, we are still the same.

When we got together in August, it was like picking up where we left off. I feel like we are much more authentic now then we were back then. Maybe it’s aging. I’m not certain. But, we all learned something new about one another that we didn’t know before, we all laughed, and we all agreed that it was worth making the trip for a little stroll down memory lane.
Like the lone sheep I saw standing away from the herd on my run the other morning, it’s okay to be your unique self. You always have something to offer, and real friends will appreciate you for you.

John Dunia

I think it might have been a blast to be there on your yard that night as well, Tom!

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