While I grew up in the world of sports and had the talent and good fortune to win in many arenas, I also grew up in an era when women’s sports and equality were at the forefront of cultural determination and conflict. The first two women that ever ran cross country at my college started during my freshman year. But thanks to a Title IX ruling the women’s track team at Luther was given equal funding for a much smaller squad. A number of men grumbled about that seeming inequity, but such were the variegations of cultural adjustment in the late 70s and early 80s. Affirmative action for racial inequity was just getting going as well, and the American Disabilities Act was not passed until 1990, the same year that I was starting my job as a Promotions manager with the Kane County Chronicle.
For all my supposed jockish instincts, I was never much of a “Bro’s Bro.” Forcibly macho behavior and the dumbing down of social dialogue to “get along” just never appealed to me. For certain, I engaged in plenty of misogynistic commentary during my teen years, like most boys do. At the same time, I was also evolving some sensibilities that would turn out valuable in life.
For one thing, I started to notice how girls and women reacted when they were hurt by rude comments about their appearance, and to that, I could definitely relate. That’s when I realized it was time to change. From an early age in life, something in me always leaned toward fairness and social justice, and I valued my female friends.
Yet lacking sisters, it took me longer to understand building equal relationships with women. I was shy for one thing. That’s not necessarily a trait that women like in men when it comes to social engagement. But by the time I hit early middle school and then high school, I’d begun to develop a form of self-confidence through sports and other activities, and was able to build actual friendships with girls in my class, and I liked that.
During high school, I had girlfriends and fulfilled some of those Night Moves fantasies with my dates, even a cheerleader or two. Yet my genuine friendships with girls also remained valuable to me. Looking back, I realize it was all a competition for attention.
That continued into college, but the dynamics became more complex. On many occasions, my male teammates or colleagues would push me to have sex with women friends. There I was, a still-naive college kid that just glad to talk with women friends. Did I have to sleep with them to prove myself somehow? That was the competitive call in those days.
While I admittedly lusted for women even without such urging, I also found conversations with women much more nuanced and considerate. As a person with anxiety that sometimes lacked confidence on the broader social scale, I found that talking with women enormously helpful. Most often, that type of dialogue happened most in art and English classes where I’d found solace from misogynistic pressures in high school as well. As an avid jock, I still wrote poems for the Circus literary publications, interacting with women much smarter and more mature than me. I recall the knowing laughter from some of the sophisticated young women a bit older than me who saw the potential in a young man, but knew that it was years down the road.
Yet once I got married, there were new boundaries to learn with respect to relationships with women and especially to my wife’s best concern. She’d put up with my naive dalliances often enough, and was tired of trying to make the point on her own. So my brother ultimately confronted me with advice to be less consumed with talking about women friends in front of her. I took that advice.
That balance led to more equitable relationships with women at work. I even found myself defending women friends from misogyny and unwanted comments from male co-workers. I particularly recall a moment when three attractive women in our sales group had gotten out of their vehicles in the parking lot and were walking toward the building when a few of my male co-workers began making comments about the bounce of their breasts in summer blouses and the look of their legs in short skirts. I said, “Hey guys, come on. We work with them.”
That’s about all I could come up with at the moment, and it wasn’t all that much of a defense. But it also wasn’t well-received from the Bro perspective. “Yeah, whatever,” I recall one of them saying. A couple of them even rolled their eyes and moved away.
Around that time, I also learned that some of the men in our office group were acting on their desires. I found out about an affair or two. None of it was pretty, and being forced to keep it a secret and act like there was nothing going on between two people messing around outside of work was awkward as hell. At some point, one of those women gave a co-worker a sexually-transmitted disease. The rumor zoomed around the office and it certainly changed people’s perspective of them both.
Competition in reverse
Those kinds of social dynamics are a form of reverse social competition, as in, “How long are we supposed to keep this stuff a secret?”
That kind of behavior only magnifies with time. It becomes a competition of self-control. Eventually, a male friend came to me in confidence to confess a sexual affair that he’d been having for months. “What do you think I should do?” he asked.
“Well,” I told him. “When you’re married, there’s a kind of roadmap that you follow. When you’re on that road, you try to enjoy the scenery along the way. But once you take a side road, then all the other roads look inviting too and it’s hard to stay on the right road. You should end the affair, and get back on the right road.”
I don’t know if that was good advice or not, but he did end the affair.
I faced some of those temptations myself. One day as I was driving back from an appointment with a female co-worker, she began to confess that her marriage was dull. “He doesn’t know how to make me happy…” she observed. She turned to me and smiled. “But I know how to make men happy. In fact, I know how to make men scream. Do you want a blow job?”
Now, up to that point, I liked this woman as a friend. I knew her husband. He was a bit dull in personality. By contrast, his wife had a bubbly, anything-goes personality. I looked over at her and said, “I’m sure you do know how to make men scream. But I’m married, and I’m faithful to my wife. I think you ought should get counseling before having sex outside of marriage.”
“Boo,” she pouted. Then she settled back in her seat in that offhand way that told me nothing was different in her head. “Well, if you change your mind, you know where to find me!” She later left our company and took a job with another firm where she was ultimately fired for getting caught giving oral sex to a man in a supply closet. A closed-circuit camera had caught it all on tape.
Navigating dangerous waters
There were other hijinks going on at the Chronicle in those days. One of the circulation saleswomen was dismissed after several incidents of luring men into the basement where she exposed herself to them. Another reportedly had a “job for life” because she’d slept with one of the higher-ups. Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether to admire that kind of achievement or not. We all crave job security, but most don’t achieve it that way.
It seemed that temptation could be found almost anywhere. I had to keep my own urges in check. Once while paired with a pretty fellow salesperson on a golf outing, I couldn’t tell if her open-ended smile and slightly unbuttoned blouse were intentional or not. The sight of a pretty bra beneath a simple white shirt can almost kill a man on a hot summer afternoon. While I survived the day in good conscience, it admittedly wasn’t easy. It is true that while some women have no real intention of acting on their allure, they don’t exactly ignore the attention either. That’s where men have to learn to navigate dangerous waters.
Most of the lustier adventures at the Chronicle occurred in the sales and circulation side of our newspaper business. The editorial staff seemed far more serious-minded about their work. I never heard anything about sexual affairs among the writers or editors. If there were adulterous affairs, those folks were just better at protecting information and sources. Such are the benefits of J school, perhaps.
Over time, some of the best women salespeople in our firm began looking for employment elsewhere. They’d earned enough experience to take their talents elsewhere. Some openly admitted to me that it was the misogynistic culture at the newspaper that made them want to leave. “It’s hard to advance here,” one of them told me. “It’s sort of a Good Old Boys Club.”
So they left to join other companies. One of those new opportunities was with a creative new magazine group called Sampler Publications that had started up a classy new regional magazine called Fox Valley Living. That publication competed for the same ad revenue as our newspaper, and it drove our Publisher nuts. He railed about them in our weekly meetings. But FVL thrived because it offered something far different than a weekly newspaper. It was slick, for one thing.
A secret life of another sort
I tried to get a job there myself, and interviewed with the Ad Director that had previously worked at Playboy Magazine. I thought the interview went well, but they hired someone else. Instead, I wound up writing articles for Fox Valley Living under a pen name, Stuart Nichols. My nom de plume combined a different spelling of my father’s first name with my mother’s maiden last name. In March of 1990, not long after I’d assumed the role of Promotions Manager at the Chronicle, I secretly authored their entire Bike Trail Guide.
At the same time, I was also writing many articles under my real name for the Chronicle. That was a bit unusual because it broke the supposed firewall between editorial and advertising. But as Promotions Manager, I was in a world between the two, and I wasn’t going to be confined in my writing.
For the next four years between 1990 and 1994, I published dozens of articles on a wide spectrum of subjects for the newspaper. I covered cross country in the fall, wrote about the arts and entertainment all winter, and produced dozens of articles about nature and the environment. The Managing Editor Dave Heun alternately approved and questioned my involvement, but the Our Towns editor Shirley Calby loved working with me. Truth be told, I adored having a byline.
That newspaper is now a shadow of what it once was. I was glad to work in the newspaper business before it suffered revenue blows from the Internet that stole the recruitment, Classifieds, auto, Real Estate and Retail dollars that kept the print world alive.
Friendships have endured
I’d go on to work another seven years at a different newspaper while the good times lasted. But I also missed my women friends once they emigrated over to Sampler. I’d grown to value and trust their advice and we shared many friendly social occasions together. They all knew my wife Linda and watched us raise our two children in those early years. My friend Sally’s son Glenn even had Linda as a preschool teacher. To this day, my wife Sue and I have met up with Sally out in Tucson, and we hosted her for a dinner here at our house in Illinois.
Okay, so here’s the confession. I also wasn’t totally immune to their charms. I loved the soft voice and insightful comments of my friend Sally. I lived for the infectious laugh of the effervescent Rose. My heart lifted with the wry and lovely observations of Renee, who I’m sure found me a bit inane at times, but I think it broadened her horizons as well. They all moved on at once it seemed, but I’d still see them around town during my work in promotions. We’ve kept up light forms of friendship for many years, and I’m grateful for that. I even met up with Renee a year ago while we were both substitute teaching during the Covid-19 pandemic, and a few years back I saw Rose at the Sycamore Pumpkinfest 10K over which her Chamber of Commerce presides. She still has the same infectious laugh and twinkling eyes.
Those years of youthful experience in sales were formative in many ways, but the thing that I appreciate most is that they also produced lasting friendships. Despite all the craziness of this world, there is proof in times like these that we can live better than what the world sometimes dishes out.