Thursday, May 29, 2008

Blasts from the Past

In more ways than one.

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from an old college roommate, someone I haven't seen or spoken to in fifteen or so years. He said he'd stumbled across my site, that I looked good, that he hoped we could talk sometime. Then he mentioned some news--that Scott Swaner had died from pancreatic cancer. Scott was a brilliant, cool, charismatic person, someone who I often crossed paths with in years long since gone by. His death was a tragedy and a great loss to all those who knew him well...

...which, to be honest, doesn't entirely include me. And after I read my old roommate's e-mail, I wondered about that; I wondered about it more and more. Mostly, I wondered about the news itself. You see, Scott died nearly a year and a half ago, and I had known that. I can't remember how I knew it; just that some time ago--months? a year? more?--somebody who knew me or knew Scott or knew something about who all he and I hung out with back at BYU in the early 1990s, when we were all in our twenties and finally getting a start on adult life, passed the news along. And I was, I presume, momentarily shocked--damn, I probably thought, he was only a year older than me--and then I filed the news away. And forgot about it. But this time I didn't. Partly it's because my former roommate (Jeff Bohn is his name; why do I keep calling him "the roommate"?) sent me a link to an incredible, heart-rending blog which Scott kept during the short months between being diagnosed with terminal cancer in the spring of 2006, and his death in December of that year. What an odd, in some ways simply fascinating, in other ways simply disturbing thing, to read someone else documenting their own demise. But partly, I think it's also because the time was right. The news--this time around, anyway--caught me at a moment in time, a moment when I'm remembering, or trying to remember, other moments long past.

Scott Swaner was my AP. Only my fellow Mormons will get that reference, so let me explain. Those young Mormons who serve full-time proselyting missions for the church get sent all around the world, and experience a wide variety of forms of mission life. However, it's an absolute rule that every missionary gets assigned a companion (you're supposed to keep eyes on each other and inspire one another to obedience and faithfulness at all times, though it doesn't always work out that way), and every companionship is assigned to a district, and every district is a part of a zone, and every zone has appointed missionary leaders who report to the mission president, and every mission president assigns a couple of older, more experienced missionaries to be his "assistants to the president," or "APs," to help keep track of all the foregoing. Scott served in the same mission I did--Korea Seoul West (specifically, the western part of South Korea, from Seoul to Inchon and quite a ways down the coast). He was a little more than a year ahead of me in the mission field. I was never in the same district or zone as he was; I knew him almost solely as one of the APs, as a distant, busy, confident and unflappable character, as someone who would show up at missionary training meetings and switch from Korean to English and back again with perfect aplomb. I was, frankly, a mess for much of my two years in South Korea, full of doubts and questions and unresolved grudges and sins and fears, and the way Scott radiated humor, confidence and self-possession, was simply beautiful to me. There's a man I want to get to know, thought little-19-year-old-me.

And later, when the mission was over, when I resumed my college education as a sophomore at BYU in 1990, I did. We kept bumping into each other, showing up at the same places as the same time. We never had classes together--he was into comparative literature, I was into journalism, then political science, then philosophy, then all three--but we'd crash the same parties, nod at each other at the same movies, attend meetings for the same campus events and activities. Through Scott, I discovered and found my way into a network of people that seemed to me to be far more aware than any group of people I'd ever known. (Which means--I can say now in retrospect--that I was experiencing part of what the modern liberal university is supposed to make possible, right?) Suddenly I was involved with an underground campus newspaper, the doomed-but-fun-while-it-lasted Student Review; I was hanging out with rabble-rousers of all sorts and ages over at the Honors Building; I was going to jazz shows in Salt Lake City and ska concerts up at Snowbird (a ski resort) and a cappella jams all over the place. Some of these connections I made entirely on my own, but many came through people like Scott and those who followed in his wake. BYU may be a pretty big school, as far as undergraduate institutions go, but the number of folks I'm talking about was pretty small (at least in comparison to the teeming thousands who camped out overnight to get season football tickets). A lot of us ended up rooming together at various spots around Provo, UT, or at least spent so much time at each other's apartments that we might as well have been roommates. There was one ramshackle old place we called The Amityville House: Scott was there, and Bob and Rick Ahlander, and Dave Boyce and maybe Dave Jenkins too: a lot of people that I used to consider great friends and whom I haven't heard from or spoken with in a very, very long time.

It's weird when you look back on it, one's early college years. (Even us Mormons at BYU could find ways to make it weird, and did.) I suppose I could critique the whole thing (and have before), but now I'm just reminiscing about the strangeness of being entrusted with the expectation of suddenly growing up with relatively little real social preparation beforehand. Some, of course, had done a lot (or a little) of that preparatory growing up in high school or during their freshman year or at their jobs or on their missions, but most of us 21 or 22 or 23-year-old virgins were more than a little stymied at the prospect of--at last!--some truly unsupervised and unstructured Saturday nights. What did we do with our weekends, once our papers were done? We explored; we got busy; we went driving; we went bowling; we made rash and oh-so-serious proclamations; we dorked around. What do I remember? Scott introducing me to O'Douls. Scott and various pals protesting the Gulf War late one night in January 1991, holding up signs in front of The Palace (a dance hall), me lurking in the background and writing up the whole thing for the official campus newspaper (the one I would later be fired from for lying about my continuing ties to the aforementioned underground campus paper). Scott taking charge on a Halloween night, when a bunch of us were visiting Chicago together, making sure we all ended up at a truly hip club. Scott and Jeff and I wandering around apartment complexes back in Provo, randomly knocking on doors, pretending to be doing a study for some campus program, in reality just trying to meet girls. (Anyone remotely familiar with the social scene around Provo, or indeed any socially conservative Christian milieu, will know that the male of the species in such environments will do just about any damn fool thing as part of his quest for love, marriage, and sex--preferably in that order, of course--and we certainly weren't exceptions.) I can't say Scott and I ever became close friends through all this; more like, he was the ever-reluctant-yet-ultimately-willing ringleader, and I was a reliable member of his gang (a gang which he denied existed, but was all that apparent just the same). And at that age, if you're one of those geeks for whom social near-catastrophes seem to be practically a weekly occurrence, who wouldn't want a ringleader to follow?

A lot of this I'm bemused by now; some of it I'm proud of, and more than a little of it I'm pretty embarrassed by. (See here and here for more on all that.) But anyway you look at it, soon--assuming you have no more problems than the average white middle-class twentysomething male--the maturing, whether early or late, whether easily or through hard lessons you wish you'd never had to learn, happens: you get your bearings, you start to figure out what works and what doesn't, and then you're in your junior or senior year and trying to add up all that's come before. I can remember attending Scott's wedding reception, a lavish affair up in Salt Lake. And a few months later I was over at their house for some party or other, and things weren't quite right. (The fact that his wife appeared to be flirting with me was a bit of give away.) And then things were breaking apart: I could see that what I understood to be Scott's confidence was also, at the same time, a kind of stylized obliviousness; the latter didn't eclipse the former, but they weren't entirely distinguishable either. Things get complicated; you and your friends realize you're not entirely a project of your own making, that you have facets which will probably always both complement and contradict in part all that you think you are or hope to do. Your delayed rumspringa comes to an end. You start making choices, which means there are things you don't do, paths you don't take. Of course it's not that tidy; nothing ever is. I doubt hardly anyone can truly take one moment in their life and see it as the dividing point separating all that came before and all that came afterward. I certainly can't, and I shouldn't pretend that Scott embodied anything like that for me--for heaven's sake, we were so young then. Nonetheless, it's a tempting reconstruction: one semester it seemed as though the time was still all before you as you make choices about the roads you'll take; then it's another semester, and you've survived one controversy or catastrophe after another, and you look around and realize that you've been making choices all along, and you're a good ways down one road already--so far, in fact, that you can't even see any longer those people who you were once sure you'd be walking down some road with forever. That day came, and realized I hadn't seen Scott in months.

I'm lucky; I know I am. I've been able to stay in touch with a few old friends here and there--sometimes I've even been able to find one (or been found by one) which I'd lost, and make up for lost time. But you can't do that with everyone. The last time I spoke to Scott was a phone call, back in the summer of 1993. I was on an internship in Washington, DC, and was planning on getting married in August. I was going to go on to get an MA in International Studies, and was thinking about journalism or academia as a career; by that time...was he already at Cornell by then? Or still at BYU? I don't remember where I called to track him down; I just felt a need to hear his warm, intelligent, always slightly ironic tone of voice again. He'd left Mormonism behind, or was leaving it at any rate, and was burrowing deeper and deeper in the culture and language he'd fallen in love with while we were on our missions. (He ended up getting a Ph.D. in Korean from Harvard University, and obtained a position teaching Asian literature and poetry at the University of Washington, where by all accounts be was much loved by his students and colleagues.) We talked about mission times, goofball times, people that even by then were retreating far back into our pasts and whom we tried to help each other remember. And then we hung up, and that was probably the last time I thought much about Scott for nearly a decade and a half.

What to say, in the end? He was smart, he was funny, he was fearless, he was kind, he lived life as he saw it to the fullest, he was a born leader, he strove, for better or worse, to be entirely his own man. He taught me a hell of a lot, he gave me something to aspire to, something to follow, at a time when I suppose I really needed it. Then we were out of touch--and who knows? Perhaps we could have been better, closer, more equal friends if I or he had reached out then; certainly it was only after I'd escaped graduated from BYU that I really started to get some balance and perspective in my life, and started doing some arguably interesting things. But that's not how it worked out. Not much of a eulogy, is it? Those who knew him better--like Dave Jenkins, who'd been his friend since high school--can do much better than I. I just find myself thinking that I'm now older than he ever got to be, and that I'm twice as old as the young man who fascinated and inspired me nearly twenty years ago in South Korea. We're all mortal, and even our pasts are dying, with all our moments passing away every day. Thank God for the people we get to meet, the people who do us some good, and perhaps allow us to do some good in return, along the way.
















Scott H. Swaner, January 6, 1968-December 20, 2006. Requiescat in pace.

And, of course, cue the soundtrack (one of Scott's favorites--or at least, a favorite of the Scott that I knew, way back then):

11 comments:

Rob said...

(Heh. The circumstances of my job, like the fact that I'm waiting for a multi-hour flow dynamics simulation to finish today, seem to almost always make me the first or second to respond...)

I had misremembered your firing from the Daily Universe as having occurred in 1988. When did the Student Review stop publication? I could have sworn I still saw it distributed around Provo in late 2001, when I made a visit to the CTB as a software vendor, of all things. (Note of advice: to get the good parking across from the CTB and the Wilk, grow a beard and drive a large car. No one will bat an eye.)

I find those moments of mortal revelation more poignant as the years go by. About three years ago I passed a kidney stone and discovered a tumor all in the same summer. The two were not medically related, of course, but I found myself weeping at Tim McGraw songs, scared that I wouldn't be able to finish out the indentures I'd committed to, namely, fatherhood.

The loss of even a second-hand acquaintance feels like *loss*, or at least the sympathy of loss, and informs my own mortality in a way my 22 year old self could never have felt. But I see that only in hindsight.

And there's that longing, now: Because of your eulogy, whatever its quality, I want to have met him, and feel the lost opportunity.

To absent friends, then, in memory still bright.

And hey, a sophomoric observation, since you noted that part of the purpose of the liberal arts university is to mingle with diverse people: Would you have met Scott, had the Church not sent all us BYU freshmen to literally the four corners of the earth, apart from one another after only an average of eight months of acquaintance?

Rob said...

Augh! Sorry! I left out critical details: The kidney stone was anomalous and minor. And the "tumor" turned out to be a giant-cell mass, entirely benign and since completely excised.

I'm not dying, myself, just aware of mortality a little more than 16 years ago... The worst I have to contend with these days is mild obesity and some lower back pain. Again, sorry!

Dave said...

wow-- thank buddha i finally found you. what's up? i still find myself wistfully remembering things whenever i listen to certain albums, or when i go out for bulkogi, or when i simply challenge my self-inflicted complacency.

ping me: me at davejenkins dot com

ME said...

I didn't know Scott--surprising, since we traveled in the same circles (Writing Lab, VOICE, etc.) at BYU and doubtless knew a number of the same people. Your reminiscences beautifully capture the influence Scott had on you and the many intersections of your friendship.

And gawd, does it bring up the memories of jostling for coolness and acceptance and trying to feel our way through our first out-of-the-nest years. Sheesh.

I connected with some of my former roommates when one lost a baby and after one of our old gang from DT died suddenly, but I haven't stayed in touch after that.

Your post about Scott is gently nudging me to reconnect with old friends and let them know the ways they've had an impact on my life.

So, Russell, thank you for many years of friendship and remaining dedicatedly in touch--even if all we have time to do is read each other's blogs or drop an occasional email. I'm hoping that once we move outta SoTex we'll be able to hang out in person more often than once every 8-10 years. :)

Mary Ellen

Russell Arben Fox said...

Rob,

I had misremembered your firing from the Daily Universe as having occurred in 1988. When did the Student Review stop publication? I could have sworn I still saw it distributed around Provo in late 2001, when I made a visit to the CTB as a software vendor, of all things.

Oh no, 1988 was my (our!) freshman year; all I did for either the Daily Universe or Student Review then was volunteer and write some stuff. (Though even there I managed to get into some trouble...) The firing didn't happen until my dual allegiances blew up in my face on election night, November 1992. As for Student Review, it continued to stumble along for quite a while after my last formal involvement with the paper, which was around spring of 1995 or thereabouts.

I'm glad your health is good; I've had some recent crises of my own, and I know how scary they can be. And you're probably right--while there's always the possibility that Scott and I could have become sort-of friends without the common mission experience behind us (after all, he had a lot of friends, and he hadn't served missions with any of them), it can't be denied that having been in Korea at the same gave us a common denominator to build on.

Dave,

Holy crap. As I live and breathe: Dave Jenkins. Welcome! I spent a while going over your website; obviously, you're a seriously wired individual these days. I've become something of a Luddite, myself. Still, I'm going to e-mail you right now.

Mary Ellen,

Thanks for the kind words...and thank you for having been a friend and confident of such longstanding, even as our paths have kept us away from each others lives and mutual interests for so long. Maybe I can find an excuse for writing about our Daily Universe days, sometime. Until then, well, we'll always have the Shakespeare Festival.

I wonder if, technically, your move to Utah will put you closer to us than you are now? You wouldn't think so, but Texas is so big that being at the bottom of it puts way out of reach. And were you really a Deseret Towers person? I didn't know that.

mjp said...

Russell:

Thanks for your post. I'm a T&S reader and came over on the link.

I'm a Korean RM and BYU grad (half a generation older than you and Scott--Seoul Mission 76 to 77) and have had some similar experiences and losses, so your recollections were especially meaningful to me.

I was surprised (and comforted) when you said you were a mess on your mission. That's not something most people would admit to and based on your posts at T&S I've never thought of you as a mess in any way. Glad you survived.

Keep up the good work here and on T&S.

Sheri Swaner said...

Dear Russell,

Ah, Elvis Costello. Yep, my brother Scott, continued his deep affection and love of his music till the day he died.
I miss my brother more than I can articulate or
dare think about sometimes.
He fought and dealt with cancer the same way he
approached his studies and learning Korean; determined and passionately.

I thank you for remembering and writing so eloquently about Scott. He loved all of you guys--
and it was a treat to read and remember that part of his life.
So much better to recall that time, than the past
2 to 3 years. They were tough. And remain so.
Scott was my dearest and best friend, as well as my brother-- So, I feel doubly fortunate and blessed.
He was, and is my blessing.

Our Mom died a mere 3 weeks after Scott's untimely and tragic death from Pancreatic Cancer.
A double whammy for me.
He asked of me only one thing before he died;
he made me promise that I would keep living.
Really living life and fulfilling my potential.

I keep trying to keep that promise daily. Hopefully, one day I will get it right! : )

I wish I could have all of you over for dinner! Dave J., Bob A, and the rest-- I wish I could remember
all of your names.
I have all of his belongings from his LDS Mission and High School and BYU days.
He was diligent, rather emphatic about keeping and writing in his Journal, daily. What a great gift to be able to re-read his experiences and how he felt about them. What he questioned and why?

Please keep in touch. "Hi" and gratitude to Dave and Bob also. All of you, talented and honorable.

My best to you,

Sheri Swaner

sschapin50@gmail.com

Russell Arben Fox said...

MJP,

Thanks very much for your comment. My twentieth mission anniversary is coming up here in a couple of weeks, and I've thought about writing something about what kind of mess I was in the mission field, and how I eventually straightened out, sort of. Stay tuned.

Sheri,

It's so kind of you to write in! Thank you. I'm glad that you found my recollections of Scott pleasing; I was concerned that those who survived him might have found them disrespectful, perhaps, in some way. Anyway, your love and respect for your brother comes shining through your words. I can't imagine what sort of horrible hell the winter of 2006-2007 must have been for you, losing your brother and your mother almost at the same time. For whatever it's worth, you have my deepest condolences.

It really would be weird and fun and touching if all of us who knew Scott from that era could get together with you for dinner someday! Such memories we could share. It's probably impossible, but hey, stranger things have happened.

Thanks again for writing. I hope and pray that your life is, when all is said and done, a good one: that you can stay confident, be strong, and always remember the good times.

Rob said...

For what it's worth, Russell, I've concluded I was a mess on my mission as well. Even if your spectrum of regrets are not the same as mine, you're not alone in that camp.

ME said...

Viva Shakespeare, jumping in fountains and singing loudly along with Queen on road trips!

True, I may not be any closer in Utah miles-wise, but traveling will be much less of a hassle with the selection! of direct!! flights!! out of SLC. Despite the cool musical sculpture, I have spent enough time in the DFW airport to last a lifetime.

Double blast from the past: I knew the same Dave Jenkins. Didn't know you knew him too. Small world, eh?

Mary Ellen

Dave said...

Well, what _is_ so funny about peace, love, and understanding?