An orange sky above Central Washington University
Behold, my alma mater—Central Washington University.

Surviving Sulzbach Criticism

Friendship is a funny thing. As a kid, I didn’t pay much attention to who my friends were. Anyone willing to play with me was a candidate. By that logic, I was friends with the whole neighborhood. Later, I became choosier about the folks with whom I was willing to share my sandbox. I began to cherish things over people. Things could be organized and kept in line. Friends were fickle.

Once, I created a “Bachelor’s Forever” club and asked my friends Josiah B. and Jon M. to join. We were about twelve years old. Steep fines awaited any member who violated the terms. Not surprisingly, they both declined. Jon gave me some baloney line about preserving the family name. Psh! Friends, I learned, would eventually let me down.

As my age increased, the number of my friends decreased. That was OK by me. I couldn’t recall having ever sought them out. They more or less glommed onto me like ticks. Ah, but then the advent of Facebook changed everything. Suddenly, I had more friends than pimples! Unlike my acne, I was not in close contact with these “friends.” We attended the same church, but that’s about it.

At my first community college, I made zero friends in two years. A new record! At my second community college, I already knew two friends from church. We shared a few classes and carpooled a bit. At university, I made exactly three new friends: Ryan S., Ryan R., and one Andrew Hilzendeger. I had a semi-friend named Andre whom I met at Campus Crusade for Christ, where I also met Ryan S. Outside the group, Andre and I had little in common except a willingness to act like fools on video.

My first year at university was my junior year due to transferring credits. I often ate lunch in the cafeteria with my next-door roommate. We didn’t arrange it; our schedules simply overlapped. He seemed to enjoy university life even less than I did. He rarely spoke, and I sadly don’t recall his name.

I knew a Todd and an Austin on campus because they also attended my home church. They both extended social invites, but I blew them off. I had no time for that! At twenty-five years old, I had already worked three jobs. University held no delusions of grandeur for me. I wanted only one thing: a degree.

That changed in the fall of 2010. My senior year approached, and I had waited too long to reserve a room on campus. I was in a pickle. My friend Ryan S. suggested rooming with him and another guy named Andrew. The way he pitched it, we could save money and have good times! I was reluctant. Peace and quiet were important to me. Still, I needed a room and the reduced cost was appealing.

My memory grows fuzzy here. I believe we all met up together or talked on the phone so that we could formalize the plan. Upon meeting Andrew, I realized we had shared a class together the previous year. He had written and read aloud a lofty piece about Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Despite his impeccable fashion sense, he was a nerd at heart. That was good enough for me.

Our digs were a modest two-bedroom, one-bathroom flat on the third floor of the Stevens Whitney dormitory. Between our rooms was a cold foyer with some uncomfortable couches and a microwave. One of my roommates added a TV, making it our official movie-watching room. Andrew had me watch Christopher Nolan’s Inception. I found it convoluted and impersonal despite the intriguing concept. This was one of many instances where I bashed something Andrew held dear.

Ah, poor Andrew. For the last eleven years, Andrew has been my friend. He has suffered through a great deal of my “humor,” affectionally dubbed “Sulzbach Criticism” in honor of our time at university. Where others would have given up on me, Andrew persevered.

Humor is a big step toward friendship in my book, or at the very least camaraderie. Unfortunately, my brand is an acquired taste. Sometimes I use it as a defense mechanism. Andrew was and still is a pensive fellow, keen to ponder philosophical matters and ruminate on heady topics. I am more blunt, so I often poked fun at his seriousness. This understandably frustrated him. I’m surprised he never punched me in the face.

Frustration, like making friends, was not my goal. My upbringing prepared me to keep words handy—words for eliciting laughter, easing tensions, and escaping punishment. I weaseled my way out of many well-deserved spankings by dancing a fine line between clever and disrespectful.

As a roommate, I employed levity to ease the cogs of contention between Ryan S. and Andrew. Andrew often bore the brunt of this because he was the youngest and less outspoken. His earnestness worked against him; my humor found the chinks in his armor. I pounced at nearly every opportunity to make a joke. In retrospect, this speaks to my immaturity and lack of sensitivity.

Andrew gradually came to anticipate, if not appreciate, these playful barbs. We bonded over a mutual affection for the art of storytelling, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man duology, and Star Wars. I learned that Andrew’s passion for Star Wars far surpassed my own. His ability to quote the films with pinpoint accuracy is second to none, which will no doubt score him points in future romantic endeavors.

Sharing a dorm room also helped us grow comfortable in each other’s presence. Many were the nights we laughed ourselves to sleep. In short, we became friends. I wouldn’t tell him outright until much later, but I valued his friendship and enjoyed our countless walks around campus, talking about stories and life. He helped me out of a jam involving a persistent girl whose affections were unrequited. I don’t know what you call an anti-wingman, but Andrew shot down the girl’s plane with aplomb.

After university, we maintained contact and met once a month for our “meeting of the minds.” Less eloquently, these were breakfast and story-talk sessions. One of my worries when I got married in 2015 was that my friendships—the few that I still had—would take a hit. The frequency of our meetups did decline, but Andrew and my friend Sean became key members in a new quartet including Erica. Prior to the birth of Olivia, all four of us enjoyed watching movies, playing games, recording podcasts, and eating good food.

Andrew has long-since graduated from Sulzbach University. He has passed every course of Sulzbach Criticism with flying colors. He now gives as good as he gets. Interestingly, he has lightened up a lot while I have endeavored to become more serious. The pandemic has given us more opportunities to talk over FaceTime than we ever did post-university. These digital meetings of the mind feature weird voices and gut-bursting bouts of laughter. My poor wife thinks we’re nuts because she only hears one half of the conversation. She might escort us to the funny farm if she heard both.

So yes, friendship is a funny thing. Sometimes it’s a painful thing. Thank you Andrew for persisting when all you received were shrewd insults at your expense. Hopefully your hard work has paid off. Our education at Central may have been a waste of money, but I contend that your friendship is priceless.

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