Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Friend

A friend of mine is leaving the area. He’s actually leaving this region. When he pulls into Portland, he’ll actually be about as far from here as he can be and still be in the continental US. His name is Alan and he is a colleague of my wife’s at USC. Her best friend there. I know that things just won’t be the same without him.

Years ago I taught some classes as an adjunct for USC at the main campus. It was Language Arts methods. I remember coming out of class and looking down the hall at the open door to his classroom. This when we were only acquaintances. He was seated on top of the wooden table that served as a desk. Legs crossed. He was wearing the (now legendary) red sweatshirt I had seen him in so many times. His hair on top was very thin but long and rakish on the back and sides. He had a definite non-professor look. And he was shouting. Not at the top of his lungs but with gusto. I don’t remember what he was yelling about but there was passion there.

I wondered. Do I ever shout in my little college class? I mean I care about the stuff I teach but do I ever really go out to the edge? Am I really passionate? I’ve got to get to know this guy, I thought.

And I did. When our boys were just shrimps we started hanging out. Not real regular but we didn’t want to let more than a few weeks go by without touching base. At first when he called and I answered the phone I assumed he was calling for Heidi. University business. But we would talk about politics or Africa or university folks we had in common or music and then we’d close up the conversation. He called to talk to me. He reached out to me. I am a man with few close friends. He was becoming one.

We’d go out to dinner with our little family and Alan. Often. When the guys were getting a little older and they knew what cussing was, we would debrief in the car on the way home. “He said @#$% four times,” Devin would say.

“Uh, uh,” Colin, our math-boy would reply. “That was *&%$. He said @#$% six times.” So, in his way, Alan helped to teach our boys to count.

Over the years he was there to watch our boys grow up. At dinner often we would talk politics. Colin, our politics lefty, would absorb, think, discuss, debate. As much as anyone outside of our little core family, Alan taught Colin about the world. Its complexities, gray areas. Right and wrong. Human rights.

Alan was there as our boys became adolescents and witnessed the necessary baggage that comes with that. If I ever whined about the occasional disrespect, defiance or over confidence (read: know-it-all-ness), Alan would respond with something like, “What do you think their job is now?” (read: get-over-it-it’s-normal). Alan has had a way of bringing clear perspective, an objective, caring, outside view of life. As much as anyone, he loved our boys unconditionally. If Devin or Colin wasn’t around when we caught up with him, he was genuinely disappointed.

Alan’s politics are simple. Human rights. He taught me that liberal and conservative labels don’t mean anything compared to that. Human dignity and worth are what is right. It is that simple. I am clearer when I look out at the world because of my friendship with Alan. I am able to look beyond my own limited scope.

Alan has a passion for Africa, which has rubbed off on me and enriched me deeply. He has done powerful work telling the stories of those oppressed under Apartheid in South Africa. He is friends with some of the best people there.

Heidi and my boys and I had the privilege of seeing Alan fall in love – for the first time. We watched him go from infatuation to passion to commitment. Joanie is so fortunate to be a part of his life. And, now that we know Joanie, we understand that he is blessed to be a part of hers. A few weeks ago we were among the few invited to their beautiful, intimate wedding at the beach. They asked Colin and Devin and me to play at their reception. It was such an honor. Such a milestone. One of the proudest moments of my life for me as a dad was watching Devin and Colin improvising together, making beautiful music to celebrate this new union. It will be forever etched in my mind.

It’s hard to know how to put the gratitude I feel for knowing and being friends with Alan into words.

He taught me to look up and out at the world, how important it is to have a opinion, how important it is to try to understand beyond the surface.

I guess the most important thing I am grateful for is simply the friendship of this good man. I am better for knowing Alan. We will still be in touch I am sure (although I am prone to not staying in touch with old friends – a terrible personality flaw). But it won’t be the same. In this day and age distance is really only theoretical but there was comfort in knowing that he lived only several miles away and not thousands, knowing that we would connect over dinner every few weeks, that we would certainly share some holiday time, music and good beer at The Hunter Gatherer occasionally.

I am glad for Joanie and Alan’s new beginning. What an adventure lies ahead. What a brave new start. I will selfishly miss Alan but I swear to keep in touch.

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