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Thursday, November 30, 2017

30 on the 30th: Nothing Like the Sun and "Straight to My Heart"

Coming almost to the end here of my series of great albums that I still listen to, 30 years on. I started with U2 in March, then there was Prince in April, Suzanne Vega in May, Level 42 in June, The Grateful Dead in July, Def Leppard in August, INXS in September, and Bruce Springsteen in October. And what now, on the 30th of November, as winter finally begins to really set in here in Kansas? Sting's majesterial Nothing Like the Sun.

Yes, that's right, Gordon Sumner himself: Sting. You liked him, once. Oh, I know, you don't believe you ever did; you've forgotten, or you might even actively insist that you remember hating the man. Especially late 1980s Sting, with his seemingly aristocratic flirtations with Latin American and North African rhythms and jazz instrumentation, with his oh-so-enlightened devotion to protecting the rain forests, with his casual referencing of how his records were banned in Chile by Augusto Pinochet, and most of with his long hair, right? I swear, Sting probably even beats out U2's Bono for the title of major recording star whom everyone insists they never liked these days.

Well, anyway, the point is, you're delusional. You may not have been the man's greatest fan ever, you may have never really forgiven him for breaking up The Police, but you bought his albums, and put up with his world-beat noodling and mediocre poetry and jazz affectations because the results were so much more than the sum of their parts. This album, in particular, was fantastic, filled with clever, engaging, challenging, fun, moving, thoughtful music. Everyone was listening to it, myself included, and we kept on doing so, even as tastes changed, because some of its tracks were just so infectious. And then, I guess sometime around 1995 or so, everyone suddenly decided Sting was a pretentious hack, and had always been a pretentious hack, and the love we all had for this album dropped out of sight. (The only time I saw Sting was when he was on tour for his later album, Mercury Falling, in 1996, when we were living in Washington DC, and I can still remember the gleeful, vicious snark that the Washington City Paper employed in talking about his show. Which was awesome, by the way. Natalie Merchant opened.)

Anyway, here we are, 30 years on, and I love this album still. What track to choose? My favorite (or, at least, my favorite original composition from the album; I confess I really adore Sting's cover of "Little Wing" on Nothing Like the Sun, as overplayed as it definitely became), "Straight to My Heart." Something about this tune just grabbed the college-freshman me: it was a goofy paean to a surprisingly ordinary romance ("Come into my door / Be the light of my life / Come into my door / You'll never have to sweep the floor"), and yes, sure, it made me feel sophisticated and worldly and fine. Watch Sting sing it live from 1988 in Verona; maybe all the annoyance will come rushing back--but the coolness of the song will too.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Sure He's Heavy, But Still: He's My Brother

Hey everyone! No, no, calm down, it's just me, your Uncle Russell. Don't freak out; here, let me close the window behind me. Is everyone here? Great!

Now, I know your mom and dad are out, and you're planning a special surprise party for Daniel's 50th birthday when they return--what do you mean, how do I know? Well, I'm the author here so, duh: I'm omniscient. No, that does not mean I've been spying on you. Please, put down your phones. Look, I just figured this would be a good time to let you in on some secrets about your dad.

Yeah, that's right: secrets. What kind of secrets, you ask? That's a good question, actually. I mean, I haven't lived with your father for more than 30 years--though there was that time he lived with Melissa and I on and off for several months, but I'll get to that later. Oh wait, you already knew about that? Hmm. Well, the truth is you all know much more about Daniel than I do. As do your uncles, our Utah brothers who have worked and played and worshiped and vacationed alongside you all for decades. And then there's all their wives and children, all your aunts and cousins; they also all have far more immediate knowledge of Daniel than I. And then there's all his business partners and neighbors and fellow ward members from over the years. And then there's your grandmother, of course; our Mom knows us all very well, better than mere brothers ever could. And finally your mom, Lori--well, she knows Daniel the very best of all (she ought to, after 22 years!). So what do I think I'm doing here, anyway? I live in Kansas, and before that was Illinois, Arkansas, Mississippi, Washington DC--all of them far away from you all. Months go by without my so much as talking to Daniel on the phone; sometimes years have gone by without me seeing him in the flesh. Given all that, what kind of secret knowledge could I be talking about?

(Stop recording me. Yes, I know this sounds like a speech. Didn't you know I talk this way? Don't you read my blog? No, I said "blog." It's short for "weblog," and--oh, forget it, never mind, just sit down, I'm getting to the point.)

Thing is, there's something special, or at least potentially so, about the early years of sibling-hood. Yes, I know that sounds pretentious and romantic, but it's the truth, and your dad and I are evidence of it. We're only 13 months apart in age, and we were usually inseparable for our first 15 or 16 years or so. Sure, we always had our own interests and our own private lives--no one really ever knows another person, not totally--but still, you can pack an awful lot of memorable experience into that kind of intense time. Camp-outs and Scouting together, Dungeons & Dragons games together, milking cows and bailing hay together, movies together, Especially For Youth and other church conferences together, and more. Believe or not, that sort of stuff stays with you, coming back to your mind when you least expect it, even 30-plus years of adult life later. And some of it, well, is kind of secret. As in, never before shared. Oh, you don't think that's likely? Maybe so, but let's see. You all just sit there, while I, in honor of his 50th birthday, lay on you all some heavy stuff about your dad.

(Someone give me a had with this slide projector, would you? Don't worry how it works, just plug it in. No, not to the USB port, to the wall outlet. It's over there. Thanks.)

Daniel Fox, Defender of Nerds and Children
First off, keep in mind that while only 13 calendar months separated us, physically Daniel and I were seemingly many years apart while we were young. Your dad went through puberty early, I went through it late. (How early? Um, maybe age nine? Something like that. And me? Oh, that's easy: twenty-three.) But even before puberty and young adulthood changed us, when we lived in our prepubescent and adolescent worlds, Daniel was still big, strong, skilled, talented at sports, unafraid of risk and danger (has he told you about the time he dove headfirst off the barn roof into a huge tumbleweed? he got a branch stuck in the back of his throat), the sort of kid that teachers pushed into football, wrestling, anything physical--in other words, everything that I wasn't. And bless his soul, as nerdy and incompetent and embarrassing as I was on the schoolyard during recess, he protected me. Sometimes physically, like the time a bunch of older kids thought it would be fun to terrorize me because I was this weird shrimp who would wander around the playground equipment, day-dreaming and picking my nose, and they wanted to force me to eat my boogers. (Daniel and I both got wedgies that time, because he couldn't fight all those fifth graders off.) More often, he would protect me simply by being, for a little kid, amazingly loyal and decent and sacrificing, like another time one of the teachers organized a big kickball tournament during recess, with Daniel (of course) and another kid being assigned as team captains, everyone else lining up to be chosen, and when it literally came down to me and one of the aforementioned tough fifth-grade bullies as the only choices left, and Daniel's turn to choose was up, he chose me, which led the other team to whoop in celebration as the other guy ran over to their side. (They slaughtered our team, as I recall.)

Why did he spend so much time with his scrawny, sarcastic, whiny little brother? Maybe it was self-interested: I was the Dungeon Master after all, and I was happy to read big, thick, fantasy books out loud to him all the way through elementary school and beyond (Watership Down was one that took us a good long time). But no, mostly it was genuine friendship. As much as we sometimes clashed, we truly loved each other's singular companionship: getting away from the noisy house and all our immature brothers (yes, that's right, I mean your uncles: they were all so small and annoying) and developing our exclusive dream worlds: Star Trek, Tolkien, and making plans to fight the Russians when they invaded Spokane, WA, Red Dawn-style. (We wanted to believe we were Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen, but I think we both kind of knew that, at best, I'd probably lose it and go out like C. Thomas Howell. What's that? Oh, they were actors; one's dead now, and another has gone crazy. Just Google them; I don't have time to explain.) On camp-outs--both with the Boy Scouts and sometimes just on our own somewhere out in the woods around our house--we'd use a little two-man tent, and stay up all night talking--mostly Daniel asking some question or throwing out some idea, and me spinning some elaborate fantasy or detailed pseudo-scientific BS to complement it. It was great, geeky, embarrassing fun. Dad was my giant, that's for certain, but it was Daniel's shadow that I most often sought shelter in. He was the reliable one, the older brother everyone ought to have, the force of nature that, I knew, would always be on my side.

Daniel Fox, Guilt-Ridden Destroyer of Worlds
And I'm glad he was on my side, because as gentle a soul as Daniel truly was, there was a good stretch of time there where it was pretty clear, in the context of the desperate hierarchy that emerges among young people everywhere, that you didn't want to be on any side opposing him. Sometimes this was pretty obvious, like the time when, in the midst of one more of the innumerable fights all us brothers got into all the time, Daniel was locked out of the front door, and he promptly smashed open the front door window. Or the time Daniel sneaked out late at night, against Dad's orders, to hang with some kids that were staying with us during a church conference, and in response to his grounding he literally tore his bedroom apart in anger. He even ripped apart our copies of The Lord of the Rings; that really ticked me off. And I haven't even touched on the holes punched in walls or the time he accidentally broke my collarbone. (What do you mean, "Did all that really happen?" Of course it really happened! For the purposes of this essay, I have a photographic memory and am a perfectly reliable narrator. What? Oh, just shut up and keep listening.)

Sometimes the physical menace Daniel embodied was more subtle, though: like the way he treasured his .22 rifle and hunting gophers for Grandpa Bill (25 cents for every tail he brought in!), or his bow and arrow set and the hay bales he set up for targets in the back yard (we had a fun time imagining various different identities for those targets...), or the working--and, frankly, pretty spooky--crossbow that he build in shop class in junior high. (No kids, I am not kidding; he made a genuine recurve crossbow, with a draw weight of probably 200 lbs. I could barely pull it; it was a monster. No, I don't think he ever killed anything it. He just liked it hanging there on his bedroom wall. Right beside his 18-inch machete. Yeah, he just liked that too.) Just about everything about Daniel, for a good long while, anyway, all through years of junior high sports and general rough-housing, suggested toughness, aggression, and a don't-mess-with-me attitude.

But I, you see, also knew the other Daniel. The Daniel who felt so guilty about shooting a pigeon with his rifle one winter that we brought it back to the house, bandaged its wing, put it in a cage, and tried to keep alive feeding it corn kernels and grain. The Daniel who felt bad about slamming his opponents to the mat during a wrestling match, or knocking a less-heavy kid to the ground during football practice. The Daniel that I'd join in long lines with other fellow nerds to watch Return of the Jedi or The Search for Spock on opening night (there was a fight which broke out at the latter, so remember: don't mess with ushers!), or, conversely, spent afternoons with nearly getting thrown out of mostly empty theaters for manically laughing and hooting during matinees of dreck like Young Sherlock Holmes or King Solomon's Mines (though, truth be told, that movie has the funniest quicksand joke ever). This Daniel was really a quiet, simple, non-violent soul on the inside, your classic gentle bruiser. Good thing he discovered dance, something that turned his physicality into something he could embrace fully, though also something a nerdy kid like me couldn't follow.

Daniel Fox, Dancer and Lady's Man
So here's something only someone like me who lived through it all can really honestly speak to: your father, Daniel, the BYU accounting major, the businessman and house-flipper and debt-spinner and real estate maven, was probably the Fox child that came closest to an actual artistic career. No, really! Forget about Stuart's piano-playing or Marjorie's theater experience or Baden short-lived emo band; through his high school years, your dad traveled around the United States and Canada in a semi-professional dance troupe that he'd auditioned for and ended up dominating, performing folk dances and all sorts of choreographed routines for other high school audiences and senior citizens and who knows who else. They loved Daniel; he was strong and could lift up the ballerinas and other female dancers the way a proper danseur should. He absolutely could have turned that into his professional focus: he had the strength, grace, rhythm, and sense of style to pull it off. (You've heard about Grandma's many stake musical theater productions, from way back when? Your father was the lead dancer in and did the choreography for Fiddler on the Roof and Oklahoma. What about me? Don't worry: Mom made me the geek "Harvey Johnson" in Bye Bye Birdie. Oh yeah, she knew my quality.)

Thing is, as this all comes down to me through decades of memories, this was also Daniel's entrance into the dating world, and it was a world into which I couldn't follow him. Did I resent the fact that, when we went to BYU together to attend EFY, or spent a weekend together in Idaho for some regional youth church conference, that your dad concentrated so much on the nightly dances and hanging out at the girls' dorms that he basically forgot I was even there? Maybe. On the one hand, no: that space allowed me to polish up my loner/intellectual/misplaced-liberal/malcontented-high-school-debater shtick, after all. (Hey, forget all those social activities; I could spend hours hanging out at the BYU Bookstore or the stake center's library.) But at the same time, maybe yes? Time changes everything, as Climie Fisher once sang. (What? They were a band. Just Google it. What do you mean I got the title wrong? Sorry, but in this essay, I'm right, and Wikipedia's not, okay? Fine.) I mean, we weren't going to stay 8 or 11 or 14-years-old forever, were we? There was probably real envy and resentment mixed in with admiration and bemusement as the 17-year-old Daniel emerged as both a lady-killer and an independent adult, while I, deep within myself, knew I was probably just going to go to college and then never, ever leave. (Which is what happened, mostly.)

I have no idea what Daniel felt as he left childhood behind. My self-indulgent narrative was always: thank goodness I'm finally growing older, thank goodness I'm finally getting away from bullies and losers, thank goodness I'm walking away from childish things. But that narrative of distance and separation carried within it real pain. I was evolving away from my best friend, my only friend, my brother. (Yes, I know I had other brothers, but cut me some slack here. I mean, they didn't have the dialogue from whole episodes of the original series of Star Trek memorized, and they didn't help us build forts out of hay bales in grandpa's grey barn. Why didn't they? Because they were tiny, that's why.) Did he feel the same way? I don't know; the kind of conversations we'd had as 12 and 13-year-olds, milking cows by hand across from each other in a cold barn on a dark winter's morning, just weren't happening when both of us knew how to drive, Daniel was practicing clogging, and I was listening to Casey Kasem while reading George F. Will. Anyway, it was complicated, it was the 1980s, there was going to be a nuclear war, our Dad was reading Cleon Skousen and storing silver ingots in the basement in preparation for the End Times (don't worry, he got over it), and both your father and I, at one point, got our hair permed with frothy curls like Michael Jackson. It was a different country, the world of my youthful memories with Daniel. I didn't know how much I missed it until it was gone for good.

Daniel and Russell: The Return
You know, I wrote one of these essays for your father ten years ago, when he turned forty. (You should read it. Yes, right now; I gave you the link, didn't I? Hey, I'm a college professor, kids; believe me, I can stare you down silently far better and for far longer than you can stare blankly at me in return.) I talked in there about how, post-mission, your Dad and I really became very, very different people, with very different psychological and philosophical trajectories in our lives, though how much of that was a function of any actual mental state we possessed and how much was just a handy intellectual demarcation on my part as I did my usual deconstruction-and-reconstruction thing in the face of my own bad behavior is impossible to say. (Yes, even for me. Even authors have limits, you know.) Some of what came to fruition during our college years was probably just what had always been there, only now exacerbated by living on our own and the pressures and temptations and goals and failures of adult life. But part of it, surely, was also new: we were, for the first time really equals, in the sense in which Daniel's achievements and my resentments (or, rarely, the other way around) couldn't immediately be plugged into a hulking-older-brother-wise-cracking-younger-brother trope. We became, through our missions, through our educational journeys, and especially through our marriages--and particularly through Daniel's first failed one, after which he ended up living with the newly-wedded Melissa and I for a while--our own distinct, broken-yet-still-standing, still-striving, sovereign selves.

Does that mean your Dad and I are now better friends than ever, separate but stronger? Perhaps not. Life's a long time, kids; a half-century doesn't just happen without lots of other stuff--secret stuff, heavy stuff, stuff that even a personal essayist imagining an impromptu presentation in his brother's living room can't describe--happening along the way. And while some of that stuff lightens your load, some of it doesn't. Thankfully, the shared context of sibling-hood, of the ties bound up in all these secret and not-so-secret memories from 30 and 40 and more years past, outweighs everything else. As I wrote a decade ago, "the weight of brotherhood is great, giving force to the decisions one makes (both the good ones, and the ones you need to repent of)." There is probably still stuff I ought to repent of when it comes to my brother Daniel. But 50 years into this brotherhood thing, from across a thousand miles of mountains and prairie, I have to say: there's a lot more to celebrate than regret.

Yeah, I'm done. Cripes, would someone wake up Jadan, please? How long have you been asleep? Whatever. I'll let myself out. Give Daniel and Lori my best, would you? And thanks for listening! Seriously, you kids are great. No, don't worry, you don't need to save me any cake.