Featured Post

Welcome to Russell Arben Fox's Home Page

Note that if you're a student and looking for syllabi, click on the link to "Academic Home Page" on the right and search there.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Scenes from a Friendship

Note: the following dates and events are approximate, subjective, and possibly in part imaginary. The feelings behind them, though, are not.

Summer, 1991, Provo, UT: There's someone new showing up at the meetings of the staff of Student Review, the unofficial (and eventually to be banned, though briefly resurrected online) student magazine at Brigham Young University, of whom I am one. Or maybe we're all just showing up at the same places where he happens to be. His name is Michael Austin. He's a couple of years older than me, and seems to know most of the people I know, and moreover know them better than me. So I should see him as a rival, but I don't, because he doesn't seem to have any of my nervous ambition, none of my self-critical, conflicted doubt. On the contrary, he doesn't seem worried or engaged or distracted at all--he's the calmest man I've ever met. He's a great writer; his little piece comparing American citizenship to Ben & Jerry's ice cream is a big hit among us insiders. But he's not interested in writing much; he's mostly an absorber, an observer. He isn't married, and there are some women at these gatherings obviously interested in him--but for some reason, whenever we end up in the same place at the same time, he seems to like talking to me. Maybe he likes being around someone more anxiously uptight, more politically radical, more easily enraged than he, or maybe all of his English Literature and Composition peeps already know all his opinions about John Irving (about whom we argue) and Jane Austen (about whom I know nothing), and he enjoys having an attentive disciple-debate-partner-interlocutor. So we start to hang out, sometimes.

Summer 1992: My numerous faults have caught up with me, as they will many times in the years to come, and I'm an emotional wreck. My fiance has broken up with me--a good move on her part, as I was a miserable and manipulative jerk--and I'm wallowing in self-pity, guilt, and despair. I have friends who are unaccountably decent to me, even understanding, but ultimately, it would probably be better for me not to attempt to process and repair everything happening in my life, and instead just enjoy some friendly distraction. That Michael provides. I crash at his rabidly dis-assembling apartment (he'll be moving to Santa Barbara to begin a Ph.D. in English soon) regularly, and we waste time. We watch a lot of bad movies: "Freejack," with Mick Jagger, and "Raising Caine," with John Lithgow. We argue about actors, scripts, and when movie trailers are better than the actual film ("Alien 3"). It helps. He leaves before the summer ends, and I miss him.

Summer 1997-Summer 2001, Washington DC: Michael and I are on a shared e-mail list of Student Review veterans (of which Michael technically never was, but everyone on the list knows him and likes him, and so he's in), and he shares the news: he and his wife Karen will be moving to Shepherdstown, WV, where he's gotten a job right out of graduate school, teaching at Shepherd College. Hey man, I say, that's only a little over an hour from where we live in Arlington, VA; we ought to get together. He says yes, we should. So we do, here and there. We visit Shepherdstown, where Michael's constant calm, his institutional pragmatism, and his clear thinking turn him from the English Department's newest hire to their chairperson in a single year. My wife Melissa and Michael's wife Karen connect--she's whip-smart, unfailingly generous, and über-competent, with levels of engagement and energy that put Michael, me, and any 20 other random people we know to shame. We're not the closest of friends, but we stay in touch. They visit us and stay over for Thanksgiving. Michael comes down to DC for presentations, and I round some friends to come and listen to what he has to say. We visit them as their children are born and one of them struggles long and worryingly with health issues. We swap Harry Potter theories. We're young Mormon families, just starting out (we have a head start on them when it comes to kids, but they have a head start on us when it comes to real-world jobs), and we start becoming a part, however slightly, of the framework of each others' lives.

Late fall 2007, Wichita, KS: I get a phone call at my office at Friends University, not long after the beginning of my second year teaching there. It's Michael. It's been years since we'd last really talked--we'd stayed in occasional touch via e-mail, talked Mormonism and academic gossip and the like, mailed Christmas cards to each other, but that's about it. I knew he'd become a dean at Shepherd College (now Shepherd University), and that had made me bitter as I'd flailed through five years of trying to find a lasting academic job. But now, at least, things appeared stable, and Michael has some news for me: he's applied for a job as Provost of Newman University, in Wichita, KS, less than a mile from my office, and what did I know about it? So we talk, and then later talk some more. Soon he's a finalist, and he's flying out to Wichita from West Virginia. And then, the job is his: the Austins are coming to Wichita. Soon they've bought a house--on the same side of the city as us, actually only a mile and a half from our house. By the summer of the following year, we're attending the same congregation, our kids are playing together, Melissa and Karen are part of book group, Michael is giving me rides into work in bad weather, and life is good.

Indeterminate months in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011: Things happen, both good and bad. People get older, priorities change, mistakes get made and repented of, people surprise each other, and life goes on. Melissa and I have a crisis, a doozy, a possible deal-breaker, and I'm at a loss; I have nowhere to do; I've got nothing. Nonsense, says Michael, who picks me up from work and takes me out to eat and keeps me from cracking up, while Karen gives Melissa a place to vent and think and give me another chance. Extended family dynamics on both our parts force changes in the way we think and the way we relate to one another, and to the church and the culture we share, and those changes cause tension between our families, tension that takes months to smooth out. Michael and I travel together to an academic Mormon gathering in Independence, MO, and he wows everyone there, and I wonder, "Is he always going to be the smartest person in every room we visit?" I'm defensive, but also proud to be his friend.

Summer 2012: The Mormon stake leadership in our area changes the geographic borders of all the local congregations, and after four years of regular drop-ins and shared spaces and casual encounters and planned events, the focus of our Mormon lives separate. We still share rides and watch either others kids (though they're all older now) and chat constantly, but now we don't have those same Sunday hours and interpersonal experiences in common any longer. I'm asked to step into a leadership position in our congregation, and now I'm doing something radically unlike anything Michael has ever done. Melissa and the girls find their whole place in our little Mormon world changed, and her closest friend is dealing with the same things from the other side of a congregational divide. It makes for some hard times, and some things begin to fall apart, never (yet, anyway) to be put back together quite the way they were before.

Early spring 2014: After constant cajoling from wards like our own, the stake leadership realizes that the boundaries of our congregation just aren't demographically sustainable, and make some amendments to their restructuring--and as result, the Austins and the Foxes are back together again. It's great, but it's also different. Karen and Melissa round up an old friend and decide to just create their own private book club, doing their own thing. Karen becomes a bit of a savior to our congregation, with her organizational skills and compassion providing immensely needed support to the mostly old, mostly poor, members of our ward. And our bishop finds in Michael the same source of humor, wisdom, and equanimity which everyone has long been drawn to him for. We make him a teacher, and he re-engages in discussing and sharing religious ideas from the scriptures to a greater extent than I've seen from him in a long, long time. In a way that wasn't the case only a few years earlier, I feel as though we're all the shared property of so many others now, and extra work has to be done (or, when we're tired with other things, just isn't done at all) to carve out space for that which once pretty much just our own. Part of me is sad about that; part of me isn't. We couldn't stay the same young Mormon families forever, could we?

Early summer 2015: Michael is brought into the ward leadership along with our bishop and me, and now I'm actually working alongside him in a completely new way. I learn about his anxieties and fears, his priorities and beliefs, his frustrations and faults, his weaknesses and strengths in great detail and in ways that were perhaps more easily hidden before. As the months go by, American Mormonism, both locally and institutionally, seems to be constantly buffeted by controversy or questions or confusion, and Michael earns my admiration weekly for the way he just seems to know how to say--or not say--certain things, whether in private meetings or Sunday school classes or boring leadership training gatherings. He publishes a book which pretty explicitly refutes multiple well-worn and scripturally insupportable folk teachings in our church, and because it's him, even the most conservative members of the congregation are open to it. Melissa and I find ourselves in a position of taking care of a daughter's friend, someone who needs a home and a family, and we need to negotiate both bureaucracies and a language barrier to accomplish that--and Michael's fluent Spanish is essential to the latter. Michael and I drive all the way to Nauvoo, IL, and back in order to attend another Mormon academic gathering, and the whole long drip is a delight. We're all different, I guess, and just becoming more so, but for all our ever-increasing differences, we find we're all also very much in each others' debt.

June 15, 2016: Well, it had to happen; no one can put up with frustration and argument in the workplace on a regular basis forever, not when one has the sort of skills that others are willing to pay good money to make use of. So Michael is leaving Newman University today, and leaving Wichita tomorrow, heading for Evansville, IL, where Karen has already, as is typical of her, taken control of every detail, buying and setting up their new house and making all arrangements necessary, in preparation of Michael beginning a new job at the University of Evansville. It's sad, but we've been separated before, and our friendship survived. It'll change though: as it's already changed, it'll just change more. But hopefully the part that really matters--the part which has endured for more than a quarter-century in one fashion or another--never will.

Joseph Smith, the founder of our shared religious heritage, once called friendship one of the "grand fundamental principles" of our religion, something which can "revolutionize and civilize the world." Michael's and my friendship has been, for better or worse, far more civilized than revolutionary; being comrades in a shared desperate struggle, being BFFs that share every intimate detail and plot out every secret goal, has never really been our thing. (We have other loved ones for that, obviously.) But while militancy and earnest meaningfulness have their place, let me raise my glass here to constancy, compassion, and conviviality. Michael has been that kind of friend to me, and I've been blessed by it, as have many others. Thanks, Michael. Don't be a stranger, you hear?

No comments: