i.m. Brian Doyle

I’m teaching a Brian Doyle essay this week, “The Anchoviad.” The second of two Doyle essays this term. Two weeks ago it was “Joyas Volardores,” Brian’s majestic exploration of the human heart by way of hummingbirds, whales, worms and bacteria. My students were rightly captivated—struck—by the abrupt swerve at the end of the essay, from insects and mollusks to startling considerations of human attachment. One student, a quiet Vietnamese-American from western Michigan, where she works in her mom’s nail salon, said she’d made herself read the last paragraph again, out loud, it was so breath-catching.

I told them a little about Brian—how he’d edited a university rag (Portland Magazine), as I too once had, and how welcome his comments had always been on the various listservs to which we editors subscribed. Always quirky, a fountain of sentences just this side of nonsense, yet always with some jagged truth to jolt you out of the office humdrum. Quips on editing, on faculty egos (“the only time we type Doctor is if you can remove kidneys, teeth, or neuroses professionally”), on the miracle of being able to make a living by making magazines. He was right.

For years I’d wanted to hire him to write for the public health magazine I edited, and in 2016 I nearly did. We crossed paths at a writers conference in Wyoming and talked about his writing a piece on water—Flint’s had just been poisoned, and I wanted to devote a whole issue to the topic. “Personally I think water is (a) the holiest of substances and (b) the great story of the 21st century,” he said in a follow-up email.

I told him I could pay a dollar a word, “if you’re a $1 a word kind of guy.” To which he responded:

i am not a buck a word guy – i am a story guy, and whatever you have to pay is plenty. I was thinking recently that I have been paid in wood, feathers, wine, beer, berries, a deer antler, jam, fish, and, for a while with a bird magazine, a dollar per essay. I once was paid in wine by the number of words by an Australian newspaper, but that was a mistake, and i found myself throwing in adjectives willy nilly hahahaha

I told him I was bracing for adjectives.

Sinuous serpentine riverine supple pliable rippled rippling burbling, he wrote back.

Not long after that exchange, Brian was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had surgery. He died on Memorial Day 2017, not yet 60.

I shared our email exchange with my students after we read “Joyas Volardores.” Be that generous yourselves, I told them. What I meant was, if, in something as ephemeral as an email exchange, you have the option of being a mensch or being a schmuck, be a mensch.

In “The Anchoviad,” Doyle says of his then–three-year-old son Liam, whose habit it was to fall asleep every night with a can of anchovies in his hand: “He is a startling, one-time-only, boneheaded miracle with a sensory complex in his head and heart that I can only guess at and dimly try to savor in the few brilliant moments I have been given to swim with him.” Another frank reminder to cherish those we’ve been given to swim with.

Recognize the holy. Don’t take water for granted. Be generous. Be more generous.

The View from My Window

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Last Wednesday afternoon, I was teaching, as I have off and on for some 20 years, James Agee’s hypnotic essay “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” It’s the last time I’m likely to teach it, so it was especially moving to me this time. I’ve got a terrific class of eight smart, quirky, avid first-year students. We got to talking about that haunting opening phrase—so successfully disguised to myself as a child—and what it meant, and I sent the students into breakout rooms to continue the discussion privately among themselves. This left me alone in my office for a few minutes, at my standing desk, looking out the window. Where I saw, unusually for a cold February afternoon, snow on the ground, twilight settling in, a child—a girl, I think—in pink leggings and a helmet and maybe a facemask (I couldn’t quite tell) balancing on a Segway. Spinning, actually, around the little circle of snow-shoveled macadam at the end of the neighboring street.

Successfully disguised to herself as a child, I thought.

And then another child: a boy this time, I think, on roller skates. Also helmeted and, possibly, masked. I couldn’t make out faces, could only guess at their ages and genders. But there they were, spinning in spheres wide and narrow as my students talked invisibly to one another about what Agee’s phrase meant to them in their lives.

Two adults, I thought, disguised as children, tracing circles on a patch of pavement. Not unlike Agee’s fathers with their hoses, and his mothers with their damp hands, and his kids running hell-bent through the neighborhood in 1915 calling out “those names by which they were known.” Spinning or circling in much the same way the adults in Agee’s essay talk as they lie on quilts in the fading light: “of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all.”

My students are for the most part 18, and experiencing a first year of college such as few, if any, have ever experienced. Most are living at home; a handful have ventured on campus, where they’re under strict rules. Still, they’re game. They turn up at 4 pm on Zoom with smiles and water bottles and, last week, ice cream. They’re marvelously not children—well into the period when they’re shaping their adult lives. One wants to be a doctor, one wants to be a medical examiner, one wants to be president of the United States. As my students talked in their breakout rooms, I watched those two children on the street outside my window and remembered the strange maturity one feels a child, possessed of an uncanny wisdom about the world—a wisdom mostly disguised to outsiders. I feel something of that disconnect today—a child on the verge of retirement, still trying to make sense of my surroundings and my future. I’ve never quite understood Agee’s essay as clearly as I did last week, watching those two child-adults etching circles on a snowy street. Soon my students came back from their breakouts, and we resumed our conversation. When I looked out the window again the children had vanished.