Tuesday, July 11, 2017

DOW' NUNDAH! -- June 13, 2017 – Many Meetings (Aussie Edition)

The Spice Girls greeted us in Brisbane. At least, as soon as the plane landed and the “seat belts on” light went off and the cabin lights went on, the radio started playing, and I heard those sonorous sounds of the 90’s:

I’ll tell ya what I want
What I really really want
So tell us whatcha want
Whatcha really really want...

Ok, so "Wannabe" was always a stupid song. But it welcomed us to Australia.

I figured you'd rather see a sunset than the Spice Girls.
A bit later, the power unexpectedly went out in the plane—come to think of it, it’s scary to think it might’ve a few hours earlier—and everything went silent. Just then, the lone, lonely voice of an Aussie broke the silence:

“Awh, the Spoice gihls uh roff!”

I swiveled my head and saw a dryly grinning steward. I liked that guy. Soon the power was restored and things went on as usual.

Speaking of things you might rather see than the Spice Girls:

"Friendship never ends" - The Spice Girls


After passing through customs, the airport corridor forked and we were forced to choose between a sign that said “Pilots” or “Airline employees” or something on the right, and a huge, glamorous display of liquor on the left. Couldn’t see another door anywhere. The lady in front of the liquor display saw Mom and me looking confusedly around and pointed through her store. Apparently, we had to run the gauntlet to get out of the airport.

“How’d you know [we were wondering where to go]?” I asked her.

“Jist a woild gies,” she said, smoiling charmingly.


Soon we met a car rental employee whose English was hard to make out (it wasn’t his first language, and an Aussie accent to boot made it a little tricky for us). Eventually he said something condescending, as if we were a bit slow to not be understanding him, which irked me a bit. We were trying to wade through his perhaps oily attempts to upsell us when he made the comment. My mom brokered peace and settled on a higher rate than we probably wanted for insurance (which we hadn’t been told about when we’d booked the car in advance), then told me not to let it bother me. It wasn’t worth it. It’s easier to write about now since I got Qantas to revoke his VISA. 

(I'm actually a conservative, but I thought this would be funny.) 
Actually, the rental company asked later about our experience and that led to things smoothing over. Much calmer by then, we still weren’t sure how to put it and the manager insisted on a true report. I said the guy probably shouldn’t suffer any sort of punishment, but just a tip that his tone could be gentler might improve people’s experience. That was right before we left Brisbane to Cairns (where the next car we’d booked was unexpectedly upgraded to a chartreuse muscle car, perfect for navigating jungles and mountains near beaches), but that comes later in the story.


The sturdy wood door of the mission home—headquarters—opened, but no one stood behind it. To the right, a cute lady with a silver bob haircut and twinkling eyes appeared, wearing a nametag that said “Sister McSwain” and holding a video camera. My mom turned her head to the left where a radiant face framed with dark blonde hair appeared—Sister Snow, Malissa, the littlest of her children, from whom she’d been an ocean away for about a year and a half.

“Mom!” Malissa said, in a tone that said happiness and relief and something so sweet there were tears. Mom didn’t say anything, she just cried and took Malissa in. Malissa beamed with her eyes closed, holding Mom tight, leaking tears down her cheek.

It’s quite a sight, the reunion of an empty nest’s guardian and the last and littlest bird to leave it. I didn’t see Mom’s face for awhile, but I’m sure it mirrored Malissa’s. They have a similar beauty—people commented on it all through Australia, how they resembled each other—and similar spirits, sweet and caring.

I wasn’t sure I should have come, thought maybe this was supposed to be just a trip for the two of them, but Malissa sweetly beamed and hugged me too, and later in the car she turned back from the passenger seat to take my hand and say, “I’m glad you’re here.” She always gets whatever she wants,” I’ve said many times, in reference to getting to serve in Australia for example, “but she’s so sweet no one can resent her for it.”


Despite an inevitably busy schedule, President and Sister McSwain nonetheless took the time to welcome us to their home, talk to us about Malissa and her good work and influence, and give us tips on enjoying our trip. The welcome occurred largely in their living room—a sunken room with a vaulted ceiling that had clean grey couches and a hearth with a beautiful picture over it—Carl Bloch’s famous painting called “The Rich Young Ruler.”
The truly conservative--and liberal--candidate.
In it, the Savior calls the attention of a clearly
affluent young man towards a few obviously poor and suffering people nearby him. It represents a story in Luke 18 that addresses the heart of Christianity—letting go of whatever it is you want most for yourself so that you can be the greatest blessing possible for your fellow men. President McSwain explained they also use it to tell their missionaries—who often come from wealthier backgrounds—that the Savior wants them to look to the poor as their equals and to love them duly as such.

President McSwain had made his money in the gas and oil industry, which he’d worked in over in Roosevelt—eastern Utah. He was probably well off himself, like most mission presidents—to drop all business affairs for three years to simply serve, one has to be well-situated. It illustrates Jacob 2:18-19 for me, how if we find the kingdom of Christ, thereafter if we seek for riches, it will be with the intent to do good. It’s neat to me that he was an example of what he was trying to get his missionaries to be.

Sister McSwain might have impressed me even more. She was sweet, energetic, and caring—things that are tremendous when you actually encounter them, although as a description they might not mean much, since those words are too often and irresponsibly used. The way she took my hand and looked at me seemed to recognize my worth and affirm it. It mattered to me. She didn’t know me at all, besides as Sister Snow’s older brother, but she cared. I think she would have whoever I was. When she learned about our tangled flight plans, she offered to have someone bring Malissa’s luggage to the airport to meet us, so she could take a simple travel bag for the next three weeks. It was an unexpected offer to sacrifice on our behalf in a very helpful way. More movingly, it was a sweet, energetic, and caring gesture.


After dropping off our stuff at our lodgings, Mom, Liss and I went off in search of dinner. Google Maps told us some cheap Indian food was .3 miles from our place, so we decided to walk.
It was winter dow nundah, what with the season of the southern hemisphere being opposite ours in the north, so though it was only 5 or 6, it was already totally dark. The Big Dipper, North Star, and Little Dipper were all gone as well—or rather, they shone somewhere directly up from below us, on the other side of earth (although it was day there, so northerners wouldn’t have seen them shining). As a coastal city, though, Brisbane’s climate was moderate though, so walking was nice—especially when we caught a whiff of Indian food on the breeze. We joked about following our noses instead of the Google Maps directions to find it, which suddenly struck me as an actually brilliant idea,
"If in doubt, Meriadoc..." 
 but Mom implied she actually didn’t think so.

Malissa laughed at the delicacy of Mom’s insinuation and the differences between Mom and I, then Mom and I laughed too. Turned out we probably wouldn’t have found the food but I still would’ve liked to try. The food itself was delicious and the menu was excellent, with the chef straight up dissing dishes he didn’t like. Gotta love personality. (Sorry I don’t remember his disses, just that he was anti-sugar.)

Waddling homeward after stuffing ourselves with chicken tikka masala, we detoured to pick up some groceries for breakfast. I asked the cashier how his day was going, and he said it was great until just now when he’d had to call a guy out for shoplifting. Just then, Mom asked me if I had put everything on the scanner and in context it seemed like a gentle hint to cough up whatever I was hiding. I suddenly panicked and worried I actually did have something hidden, and the cashier—a chill guy of about twenty—bobbed his head to one side then the other, seeming to scan my pockets and hands. My hands came out empty and we all laughed and shook our heads.

“’Bye!” we told him.

“Cheers,” he said.

DOW' NUNDAH! -- June 12, 2017 – In Memoriam

I say, “June 12, 2017 – In Memoriam,” although technically I have no memory of that day. 

Technically, I never lived it. 

At 11 PM or so, Pacific Time, on June 11, Qantas Flight 15 left LA. Before it was 12 AM—June 12—we had reached another time zone west, and thus gone back an hour. This process repeated for several hours through the night, while I was out on Sominex—Doot doot do doo do doo doot DOO!—until we crossed the international date line, and it became June 13, 2017June 12th had simply vanished. Or rather, it had never even appeared. No sight of it at all, besides the way the clock approached 11:34 PM or so before a new time zone switched it to 10:34 PM.

So I guess I don’t remember you, June 12, 2017, but I remember that you might have been. For me, you were worse than forgotten—you were never known—but what you might have been. That will always be with me.

Maybe I’ll have to learn of you from other people’s blogs and such.

(Don’t start reading them though now, people reading this. I’m sure it’s way overrated.)

DOW' NUNDAH! – June 11, 2017 – Sominex and the Spirit of Australia

I meant to write all about my trip to Australia in this segment of my blog, my journey along with me mum to go pick up my youngest sibling, Malissa, from her 18-month LDS mission to Brisbane, but it turns out I’ll have to interrupt that tale right off the bat with a commercial break.

SOMINEX! Doot doot do doo do doo doot DOO! (Catchy ditty.) 

Can you honestly tell me Sominex isn't making millions off this pic?

The stuff is magical! I slept for 8.5 hours on the plane thanks to those pills—and they’re not even habit forming!

But let me rewind a little.

Waiting in the LA airport for the flight that would take us down under (hereafter, dow’ nundah), I gushed to my mom about some magical blue gel pills Uncle Johnny had once given me before my study abroad to Jerusalem. Miraculously, they helped me sleep all the way across the Atlantic, allowing me to completely skip over the hours of waiting in cramped airline confines and to simply wake up relatively refreshed (but for some jet lag) as our plane was about to land in Austria (en route to Jeru). It was like in Jack and the Beanstalk, how he gets some wonderful, magical beans from a mysterious source but once he’s used them, they’re gone—he can never get them back again. 

This is a much cooler picture of gel capsules than I could find by googling "Jack and the Beanstalk."
I didn’t know how to get my pills again because Uncle Johnny had given them to me in an unlabeled bottle. I raised an eyebrow at the bottle but he insisted (like the vender of the beans) that they were magic, so I went for it, and it turned out that they were.

I guarded them jealously for years, hoarding them (he’d given me about 10) for a long flight now and then, alas, now they were gone. If only I could get them again. Mom sympathized, but what could she do? I continued rambling about their wondrous power, until after an hour or so Mom’s phone rang.
It was Uncle Johnny.

“Sominex,” he said, “Diphanol hydroxine.” (Actually, I can’t remember the generic name, so I just scrambled some sciency syllables together to sound convincing.) Within moments I found some at a kiosk in the LA airport—hallelujah!—and within hours I was zonked out on a plane.

Now I am left wondering about the magic of Sominex, but perhaps even more so about the magic of timeliness. I’m not sure what it was that prompted Uncle Johnny to call, but he did—right then, right as we were in need (or rather in genuine want, as my rambling showed). He doesn’t call that often either. He lives rather far away in rural Nevada, when he’s in the country.
Nevada's desert may be deserted by most, but never by Uncle Johnny.

Maybe he only comes or calls when he is called—when he senses his relatives are taking initiative to some far-off place or other. Maybe initiative has some sort of gravitational pull. Whatever the case, he’s 2 for 2 in my book. So here’s to you, Uncle Johnny, and here’s to Sominex!

(Sadly, no time today for anything except that word from our sponsors.)

(Please give me money, Sominex.)


This just in from Sominex: “No money for your commercial. Sorry.
PS – Please don't sing that ditty around our product."

Guess I’ll finish my post.


Mom and I actually might’ve saved even more money by booking with the ultimate discount airlines—Tigerair and Jetstar in the Australian neck of the world—but to avoid stressful distractions on such a meaningful trip for Malissa, we decided to go with Qantas Airlines—in Dad’s words, “The Delta Airlines of Australia,” in other words, a main player. Then the travel agency (Travel By Design) got us the same tickets for $950, so we had the best of both worlds—quality and savings.

Good thing we did, too, since once we flew on Delta from SLC to LA, we discovered we couldn’t check in to our Qantas flight. We eventually found a Qantas desk and a helpful Hispanic lady named Brenda. As we talked, she asked, “Do you have your electronic VISAs?” I always thought of VISA as a credit card, but VISA also refers to permission from a country to enter their country—an unfortunate coincidence, I think. But anyway, Mom and I looked at each other:

“Uh, no. We don’t have our VISAs. We sort of forgot those.”

Brenda exhaled slowly.

“So, you’re fortunate you booked with us, because at Qantas, we have access to a system that lets us get you VISAs right now, which is what I’m doing—but most airlines don’t have that. The other day, a lady came in without a VISA and couldn’t get one before her flight, so she missed it and had to buy another one. A VISA for Australia usually costs $50 but I can get you each one for free.”
In other words, “You were idiots, but I’m taking care of everything."

We exhaled in relief. Maybe too much, so Brenda began going on, trying to make sure we learned our lesson without having suffered any consequences.
Go on, Brenda. We're listening.
I can’t really remember what she said, because it didn’t really seem to matter—I’d just gotten off the hook without any consequences—but I do remember her sort of straining to say things as politely as she could despite how dumb people who needed them explained must be. “So, you can’t get into a foreign country without a VISA”—things like that.

And we knew all that, now that we thought of VISAs, but somehow amid our school years and planning the trip and finding cheap flights, somehow we’d both clean spaced getting VISA’s—it might’ve had something to do with being American too, how most countries are happy to trust and welcome you anyway, bless them.

At any rate, thanks to Qantas’s system and Brenda, we got our VISAs to Australia, and soon got on our way.

Qantas’s slogan is the Spirit of Australia, by the way, and if that’s the spirit of Australia, letting absent-minded but well-meaning people in, then it’s the place for me.

I smiled, and zonked out on Sominex.

DOW’ NUNDAH! - Introduction

                               “Dow’ Nundah!” 
-- Introduction -- 
I Come from the Land Dow’ Nundah!

Like most Americans, journeying to Australia— “Down Under”—has always sounded adventurous to me. Like most, I never thought I’d go. Unlike most, I had a sister, Malissa Snow[BaDS1] , who volunteered to preach Jesus Christ and him crucified for 18-months of her life.
"Sistah" - Darth Vader, Return of the Jedi
She didn’t know when she volunteered to go that she would be assigned to Australia, but she was thrilled when she got that assignment. LDS missionaries can be called anywhere, and that was exactly where she wanted to go—there or New Zealand, anyways, that neck of the woods. She is the youngest of five, naturally sweet and content to live her life without getting much attention. Part of that may be because her older siblings, of whom I am the eldest, have quirky personalities that occasionally call for any attention at hand. Whether she gracefully adapted to this or came gracefully prepared for it, I don’t know; I do know it’s easy to be happy for her. Thus, I laughed at loud with my own happiness at her                                                                                          reaction, which was as follows.

What I remember best is sitting on the couch watching a movie as a family, maybe fifteen minutes after she’d opened her mission call and assignment. She was sitting on the couch to the side of mine. As I watched, I suddenly heard a high-pitched sound to my left. It startled me, sounding a bit like a kettle boiling. I turned to see the sound was from Malissa. There was the faintest trace of sheepishness in her face when we turned to see “What was that?” but that was overshadowed—or overlit—by her radiant delight. “I’m going to Australia!” she explained. She was the kettle that had boiled over with happiness—unwatched, since that’s the way kettles boil best.
Like a pot, this isn't boiling because someone is looking at it.
 It was an emblematic moment of her, since, like I say, she’s never asked for too much attention. She’s rarely been watched as much as she ought to have been—maybe that connects to all the joy that is bubbling up within her


A year into her mission, she had learned to love serving—learned to lose her life a little more and to begin living the life of Christ—and Mom was planning a trip to visit her. Mom was excited to go meet the people that mattered so much to Malissa, and to explore Australia a bit to boot, so she’d set aside some funds for the two of them to travel together after Malissa’s mission ended. She had to fly from our home in Utah to Brisbane, then up to Cairns (an area Malissa was in and was loving—right by the Great Barrier Reef), then over to New Zealand before returning home. “If it’s not too expensive, could we go to Hobbiton too while we’re down here?” Malissa had asked Mom. The flight total for Mom was going to be about $1750. I heard that and was certain we could do better, so, that Saturday I spent 4-5 hours scouring every option online, and ended up finding all the flights she needed for around $1300. (4-5 hours to save 400 is about $100 an hour savings—per person. Not bad.) The main breakthrough, in case you’re interested in flying on the cheap, was realizing that flying one way from LA to Brisbane to Cairns to Auckland to LA was actually more expensive than flying round trip every time—as in, round trip from LA to Brisbane on both ends of the trip, from Brisbane to Cairns and back first, then Brisbane to Auckland and back last, then, as I mentioned, the flight back from Brisbane to LA.

Anyway, then we called a travel agency who had special discounts available and they said they could get the same tickets for $950. NINE FIFTY. 
"Fiftay! If it wus whon!" - someone in Braveheart that I couldn't find a pic of online

Suddenly I realized, freshman adjunct instructor that I am, even I might buy a ticket at that price.
So I did. (Sadly, the rest of our family couldn’t come due to various responsibilities. Malissa graciously allowed me to join in though.)

This next section of my blog (which has basically been brought out of retirement from several years ago), is dedicated to the meaningful moments of that trip. Early on in Brisbane we passed a freeway sign for a place called “Nundah,” which sounded like the second half of “Down Under” pronounced with an Aussie’s accent, and thus I introduce the title of these tales of travel:

“Dow’ Nundah!”

Oh, and I almost forgot. Just in case you haven’t ever caught a glimpse of Australia and thus don’t know how cool it promises to be, I recommend watching this video, which was officially designated by the Australian government to represent their most chill and friendly nation:

(Alternatively, you might watch Finding Nemo or The Man from Snowy River – both great flicks, just not as culturally representative as the aforementioned music video.)

Cheers for tuning in, chums,

PS - Just got back from the trip, actually, which went from June 11, 2017 - July 6, 2017 (two July 6's, actually--stay tuned for more). Amid my other writing projects--most notably the trucking memoir, 6 Fingers Left to Lose--I'll be uploading my stories retroactively as I write things up from journal entries. I hope to get this done quickly before memories fade too much.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

“A Brilliant Music Stilled” (In Memory of Brian Doyle)

“…And please give Teacher the grace to be alert to the real questions being asked here, which are usually silent and in the eyes...
                                                                        —Brian Doyle, “Room Eight”

One month ago, Brian Doyle, whom I consider the greatest personal essayist ever, living or dead, ceased to be among the living. I preached his stuff to friends, told them that he had the unique gift of not only changing you with his writing, but often doing so within a single page or so. How many writers were both that striking and succinct? Few but the greatest personal essayist ever, living or dead. I was thinking of essays like “How We Wrestle Is Who We Are,” “Leap,” “Pea by Pea,” and “Original Skin” as I preached the wisdom of reading his stuff, though I also believed the slightly longer ones (in the whopping 2-3 page range) are equally worthwhile, stories like “Joyas Voladores” and “Rec League.” Not all of those essays were created equal, but all in at least one moment struck me in a way that made the day I read it a day worth having lived.
One time, as a creative writing MFA student at BYU, I got the chance to introduce Brian at the school’s English Reading Series, and I took the opportunity to preach to people there too. Generally, authors were introduced with a list of accolades, but as I thought of Brian’s work I felt like the implications of accolades fell far short of his real value. Accolades weren’t why I planned to give him my full attention. The spirit I felt in his stuff was, the life. So I wanted to give the audience that, the real reason I thought they ought to listen to him. Despite believing this was the best way to actually introduce him, I still might not have had the guts to do it though—after all, I’d never heard of simply skipping the accolades in an author’s introduction—but as I reflected on the idea, I remembered a tip he’d given writers: “Follow the energy.” I didn’t think he’d mind me taking his words seriously. I explained some of that to the audience as I introduced Brian, setting them up for a sample of what they had coming:
“Great writing is an arrow,” I quoted Brian, “shot into the hearts of others.” And then I riffed, following the energy.
“Brian’s metaphor makes writing sound dangerous, even fatal,” I said, “which I like, because there are parts of me I want to die—a whole version of me in fact. His phrase gives me hope that the right story could kill my inner demons and make me a new man.” I claimed then and claim still that Doyle has a bevy of such arrows in his quiver, and that thus we ought to listen to him, because one of those stories might be that arrow with our name on it, might be the thing that hits us dead on and kills off our darkness for good.
In other words, I agreed with another of Brian’s great lines: “If we told the right story, we could change the world.”

Because I was already introducing him for the English Reading Series, I was also given the chance to drive Brian from Provo to Salt Lake City where he’d do another reading. That might sound a bit like the school pulled a Tom Sawyer on a gullible grad student, convincing me I was lucky to handle the logistics of their Reading Series (“Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?” asks Tom), and maybe sometimes schools do that, but in my case I was more than lucky. This was the greatest essayist ever, living or dead, and I had an hour alone with him for a handful of dollars in gas.
I picked him up at his hotel in Provo and we went north to SLC, talking more about life than writing. I was happy we did that at the time, but I feel especially glad we did now. It was right, considering we were on “the brief sunlit road between great dark wildernesses,” that we talk about what mattered most. Brian didn’t just write words. He offered companionship to others on the road.

I saw Brian for the last time in 2015 in Flagstaff, AZ. He was keynote speaking at NonfictioNOW, a writing conference, which was taking place in one wing of a fancy hotel. A long corridor served as the heart of the conference, pulsing with people. Booths advertising books and MFA programs lined it on one side, backlit by tall pleasant windows, while doors to capacious conference rooms stood on the other. Brian wasn’t always around, but when he popped in, he’d trigger mild heart attacks, cause people to clot around him listening to whatever he was saying, even answers he gave to other people’s questions. I was always part of the clot. Despite feeling like a fan boy, I wasn’t willing to miss out on what Brian might say. I suspect others felt the same.
As people fighting to pass by compressed the circle around him more tightly, at one point, he glanced up and noticed me. We hadn’t talked in five years.
“Bentley! It’s great to see you here! Do you wanna catch up in a bit?”
“Definitely!” I responded, obviously.
A little while later, he told the people around him “I need to talk to Bentley for a minute” (as if anyone had a clue who I was), nodded kindly to me and gestured towards a conference room. A conference organizer approached him with some keynote speaker stuff on our way to go talk. I didn’t hear what he said, but apparently he took a rain check. Soon, I found myself alone with him in a conference room meant for 300. We might has well have been in that car headed to Salt Lake when we began to talk.

In the conference room of NonfictioNOW’s hotel, Brian asked me about life and I expressed some angst typical of MFA grads—“I don’t really know what I’m doing. I thought about going on for a PhD, or maybe teaching high school. (Frankly, I wish I could go back to my MFA and keep whitewashing fences.)”
My typical answers had a twist though, although it didn’t come out in my words—I didn’t know how to put it into them. It wasn’t just a crossroads that concerned me. It was a deeper struggle which had left me revolving head over heels in the several years since I’d graduated. I didn’t know how to explain it, and certainly knew that even if he wanted to, he didn’t have time for it, so I simply tried to ask about its application—where I might ought to go with my life to enjoy what really mattered. He gave me some predictably Romantic answers—principled, “follow the energy” type stuff, “consequences be hanged.”
For me, such Romantic answers were predictable, since I know Brian and am something of a Romantic myself—at least in how I think. I think I was on my way to living like a real one too, back when I met Brian in grad school. I had lost my way though, and lost it badly, and I still can’t explain how on the page any better than I could tell Brian in person.
The terrible irony of it all was that as Brian gave me his lofty, moving thoughts they led me to despair. This was the right path, I believed, but I didn’t know where I was. It was like having someone hand you a map to heaven when you can’t see where you are on it. I wasn’t even sure if where I was was on the map. It wasn’t that I doubted the destination was breathtaking. So as he continued giving me Romantic advice for the journey, I brokenly concluded that not even he knew how to find me. Not even he, an unusual soul who’d specifically sought me out, could help. There was nothing left to do but stop troubling him, to let him go back to whoever was waiting in the hall, to hear him out while I hid my misery at his words, which, though they were very wise, all told me, “I don’t actually get you.” In “Joyas Voladores,” Brian himself once said, “We are utterly open with no one in the end”—essentially, we eventually wind up alone. As he talked, I felt alone already.
Unexpectedly, Brian stopped talking. He looked at me.
“Something’s wrong,” he said. “Isn’t it?”
I pursed my lips, unsure of what to say: “Yes, but you tried hard, and it didn’t work, and you’ve got to go anyway, so why try”; “Yes, but really I don’t know if anyone can help me, so really, don’t worry about it”; “Yes, but I can’t even tell you where I am—I don’t know”?
He leaned forward intently. His whole aspect, so prone to being merry, was now serious and responsive. His eyebrows furrowed, his blue eyes focused through the small lenses of his glasses. His skin like leather that had just begun to show age, his dark hair (plus some gray) more desiccated and subdued than it used to be.
“Tell me. What’s wrong?”
I didn’t know what to say. I really didn’t know what was wrong, although he was right—something was. I tried to explain though and he listened and gave me some advice that amounted to just figure things out for yourself. Don’t take anyone else’s word for it. Find out the truth for yourself.
What lingers with me though was that moment, right after Brian leaned in, when he chose to listen, to pry into the silence. That choice felt substantial to me—literally, like, it was substance, it had a shape: an orb that stirred somewhere between or throughout him and me. I’m still chewing on it, on that raw recognition, that genuine acknowledgement. That moment hits me in the heart as I think about it. And so I think about it, and maybe I bleed as I do. Maybe the wound is fatal, the way to find who I want to be. Maybe Brian knew the answer after all. It had something to do with his priorities, how when everyone wanted to listen to him, he said, “Nah. I want to listen to this kid.”

A few days after Brian’s passing, I went to the Provo Temple, a holy place to Mormons. With some trees giving shade, I sat in the grass to read. I had planned to resume my reading of Anna Karenina, but felt a sort of nudge to read Leaping, by Brian Doyle. I’d brought that book of his along just because.
I’d read it once before, but had picked it up a few weeks before to reread it—my favorite of his books—but I’d only read the intro so far, so when I picked it up, I found my bookmark was at the book’s first essay, “Room Eight.”
The story relates various experiences Brian had while teaching Catholic Sunday School to fourteen seven-year-olds. He ditches the textbook, makes the class Q&A, and tries to be real with the kids. At one point, he shares a pretty amusing prayer that shows what I mean by “real”:
“Dear God, please help us not be mudheads for at least ten minutes, and please let Teacher remember that he said he would give us a five-minute break in the playground, and please let us not shout and interrupt and belch loudly so as to make the whole table dissolve into fits of giggles, and please give Teacher the grace to be alert to the real questions being asked here, which are usually silent and in the eyes...
And suddenly I was tearing up without understanding exactly why. I was remembering that chat with Brian at NonfictioNOW and realizing, I think, that he had had other such chats with people, people like these seven-year-olds (who might actually be older than me by now), that he had long known that people ask the most important questions without words, and that answering those questions matters. I was realizing all the more that Brian really believed this, that this was really who Brian was, and I was glad to have known him and sad he was gone. He always told writers that the key to great writing was listening, and I think that he spoke from experience. His writing hits me in the heart anyway, exactly like his listening. (Maybe somehow, mystically, they are the same thing.)
            So now I’m going to turn this into a final introduction for Brian, and tell you all, whoever you are, that if you’d like to be hit in the heart with an arrow (who doesn’t?), or at least if there are parts of yourself you wish would die—or a whole version of you even—well, then I know of some writing that’s dangerous, some stories that might even be fatal. There are a bevy of them quivered in the works of Brian Doyle. I recommend you read them. I recommend you listen. They are shot by one who listened first then carefully took aim, so there’s a sporting chance that they’ll hit you right where you live. They might just take your life. They might give you something better.
            They have changed my world.
            Please welcome, and give your full attention, to Brian Doyle…

(Here are some links to some of my favorite stories he wrote:)

“Leap” – about 9/11 – http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/faith/questions/leap.html
“Joyas Voladores” – about hearts and hummingbirds – https://theamericanscholar.org/joyas-volardores/
“How We Wrestle Is Who We Are” – https://orionmagazine.org/article/how-we-wrestle-is-who-we-are/

Leap: Revelations and Epiphanies, as I wrote, is my favorite book of his, followed by The Wet Engine: Exploring The Mad Wild Miracle of the Human Heart


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

I Think I'm Going to Marry Someone Your Age

...I told Malissa, my 17-year-old sister, back when I was a minute or two younger than I have grown now, which is 28 + half a year of minutes.  I figure I’ve got some good reasons for this.  (A) It seems like everyone I see on campus is 17, so it just can’t be helped; (B) I’ve got a huge green light from 19th century Britain, my favorite era (I can’t remember if they specify the age discrepancy between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, but [SPOILER ALERT: Jane Eyre] I’m pretty sure that Jane Eyre is about 20 when she winds up with Mr Rochester); and (C) I think it would be wicked hilarious.

I mean, we should’ve seen your face just now when I told you, right?  At least I hope you were appalled—you were, if you had a drop of moral sense!  So lets assume you were appalled, and that you showed it.  I love that!  Maybe I should go off on how one of life’s great pleasures is appalling people (it’s one of my love languages, I guess, but I’m not sure for what).  Few things are more rewarding than an involuntary painful raising of the eyebrows in some fair maiden’s face.  Indulge me just one story (“Forgive me a cruel chuckle”—Prince John, Robin Hood).  My man John Carr and I were running through die Schwarzwald (the Black Forest) in southern Germany, at midnight, with longswords bought from a shop beneath Heidelberg Castle.  For lack of better things to vanquish, we were slashing tree branches of just the right thickness so as to snap cleanly through.  We were feeling pretty medieval.  We liked the Dark Ages, we decided.  That’s when I noticed the sparks of green fire hovering around us, and remembered something my old friend Sheri had once told me: back when she lived in Missouri, the neighborhood kids would play with the fireflies at night—except the terrible ones next door, who would smush them on their shirts to make their shirts glow.

I knelt by a green glowing bush: “Hand me your sword.”  John did, and then I turned it into a light saber.  Of course his blade soon flickered out, and we killed some more fireflies for him and then a bunch for me.  I actually regret that.  It’s not that killing bugs goes against my conscience, but killing beauty does—and that is what I did.  A few seconds of novelty on a sword wasn’t worth lessening the number of beautiful things.  I want to make that clear.  You won’t be happier if you do that—so don’t.  I guess I have two other regrets about die Schwarzwald too.  We didn’t hunt Dave down (where was he?) to make sure he came too, and we didn’t follow through on a glorious vision I had: my sword buried blade-down in the stump of a tree in the heart of the forest, there to be entwined with ivy and there to wait the coming of some doughty and bedestined lad.  I couldn’t bear to leave half my souvenir money (40 Deutsche Marks) buried in the Black Forest.   (The other 40 DM had been well-spent on gelato.)  As if I could have devoted my blade to a more epic cause than the one I had right there.  Shortsightedly, I took it home, where it was later broken by my brother (bless him).  Well, we are slipping towards an abyss of morality, when that was far from my object at the outset.  What I meant to say was that it was fun to appall Sheri with my creative application of her story of childhood trauma.  Of course, this was a bad example because I was hiding how I felt a little sick about it too while I told her.  So lets go back to something I don’t feel sick about—marrying underage women!


I just think it would be endlessly funny to make people squirm (as subtly and politely as they could) by announcing the vast age discrepancy between myself and my espoused wife at every opportunity.  I’m grinning just picturing their faces.  Of course, that was the moral problem I ran into when I imagined dating one of my students, back when I was teaching freshman writing at the Y.  No, lets focus on the immoral part first.  Something (heh heh) gave me the idea to scandalize the grad carrels (instructor offices) by declaring how hot one of my students was, so I did.  Did I get the most wonderful reactions.  Jaws dropped left and jaws dropped right.  The lie went so well I yearned to make it true.  I thought it might be nice to passionately kiss some girl in the Composition Department until asked what I was doing.  With a furrowed brow: “I’m trying to decide if I’ll give her an A.”  A moment’s pause, then, “I think so.”  As I told Malissa when I was a week or so younger, “Probably the funnest thing about teaching is thinking of ways to get fired.”  That actually came out as honest truth, as I realized it myself.  But hang it all I can’t remember what my other idea was.  There were two: scandal by romancing a student, and something equally amusing.

By now I should point out the reason (singular) that romancing a student isn’t funny: her feelings.  The department’s feelings are professional; a person’s feelings are, well, personal, and thus they mean a lot more.  That was probably the biggest reason I didn’t want to date a student (not to avoid getting fired—it is rich that I’m unemployed as I write this though).  While it would be simply funny to professionally appall co-workers, it would be something very different to hurt someone’s feelings: perhaps this would be akin to squashing bugs vs. killing some of the world’s beauty.  Not that I didn’t take the opportunity in class, a time or two, to proclaim: “Only two more months until I can start dating one of you!”  I keep wanting to filter this, but then I think, no: I need to filter out what I am uninclined to filter.

My friend Brett once dated a girl who was several years younger than him—maybe 5 or so.  Boy did I admire the way he would refer to that over meals.   “I always knew I was going to date someone younger than me, even clear back in high school, when I saw how cute those mia maids were.”  I think it made his girlfriend feel a little uncomfortable, but not me.  He made me feel free.  Actually really.  Somehow things are safe once you’ve made them a joke.  Maybe it takes courage to laugh at things, and so once you’ve laughed, you have overcome your fear.  On this principle growing a mustache is a good idea.  My brother said it enhanced his self-image by deteriorating his image (according to some).  Every time it bristled he was forced to remember that he had faced society’s opinions at large, and defied them with a transcendant nonchalance.  With every itch and prickle, he remembered how he was heroic.  It was like a title of liberty, in effect.  For freedom.  For Frodo.

My main objection though—when my heart is right and strong and leans not to its own understanding, nor society’s—to marrying someone much younger than I, is that while there are some lovely “first round draft picks,” as my friend Dan Jones pleases to call them, there is only one thing we can't live without, and not everyone knows what it is.  Some of them are still figuring out what life’s all about, in my grandpa’s phrase (he was serving in a student ward and had a weather eye out for my interests).  Of course, that’s just a tendency or probability—the same way it seems that pretty girls are more often vain, or intelligent people condescending, or athletes arrogant.  Some defy their circumstances; some are greater than their gifts.  When my friend Alli was sort of figuring life out still, she was about to marry a guy, and caught some flack (sp?) for being so young: people kept questioning her judgment.  We talked about it once and I offered her my thoughts, which, coincidentally, align with those of some Romantics: “We do not age by time, but by feeling.”  In other words, time is no guarantee that someone is ready or not.  Time brings experience, and experience (we hope) a better grasp of truth, but it is only truth that matters.  John Keats, for example, died at 25, but oh the poetry he had in his soul.   His writing makes me wonder how much he had felt, and if the sum of those emotions was a life that was eternal yet.  I suppose that that’s the only age that matters, both for me and who I hope to find.

“Faint hearts never won fair ladies!” – Robin Hood

*I should mention I've had plenty of crushes on older girls (beggars can't be choosers)