Friday, December 7, 2018

Dec 7: Patrick Madden: "heh heh heh heh" (a correspondence with Brian Doyle)

I wanted to find one of Brian Doyle’s old emails whose subject line, I knew, was “heh heh heh heh.” Gmail turned up ten qualifying messages, though their number of hehs varied, and I was grateful for the loose interpretation of my query. I smiled at the revelation, the habit I had never before discerned: ten messages, all aiming to brighten my day with laughter. This fact alone is perhaps sufficient, and I should turn quietly away here, I suppose, but for the fact that I began using Gmail only in 2012, and I wanted to check older emails, too, so I searched another online archive, which turned up an additional nine, going back two further years, to 2010. I know there must be more, as Brian and I became friends at the end of the last millennium, and while our correspondence trickled slowly at first, it soon became frequent, fitful showers, with emails every few weeks, at least, nearly always initiated by him, nearly always including a brief piece of light prose, sometimes formatted in a thin proemic column, always designed to delight and grant insight, eliciting my grins and chuckles, sometimes my tears, always my admiration and wonder. But for now those other probable ephemeral messages remain inaccessible to me, hidden on some remote server somewhere just out of reach.

I pause here for a moment to collect my thoughts and gather my emotions, as it has been eighteen months since Brian died, too young, suddenly, his teeming brain overtaken by a cancer. I write the previous sentence and feel that it is insufficient, too crafted, leaning too hard into something fabricated and feigned, yet I cannot design anything better to explain myself while also informing my imagined reader of the fact of Brian’s still-recent death.

Back at it: I have just now (the essay is written in the eternal now) revisited and reread the nineteen Brian Doyle emails with subject lines of variable hehs in order to create this Advent essay to share with you.

I can report that they are a glorious hodgepodge, a marvelous miscellany, by which I mean not to exaggerate their literary greatness, but to recognize in them an exuberant immediacy that could be said to fail as often as it succeeds, if one were binarily inclined, which I am not. There are two essays alluding to E. B. White and two essays that refer to or derive from the same small moment before horseback riding and two essays about Doyle’s unorthodox writing style and two inspired by nature and two about the strange creatures called writers and more than two about the strange creatures called children. There is a reminiscence about playing freshman football (badly). An elaborate expansion of the proverb “If you give a man a fish…” A retelling of Daniel in the Lions’ Den from the lions’ perspective. Moral advice against the sins of envy and thievery. Timestamped field notes from a “Mammalian Observation Project” involving his toddler son. A humorously nervous return to the Doyles’ wedding day, during which Brian’s father compliments him, “You look dashing all dressed in white like that, although I wouldn’t be surprised if someone takes you for an ice cream vendor.”

Many of the essays are silly like that, at least temporarily, before they pivot deftly into significance, but I think that for Brian these categories were not opposed in the least. He believed that laughter is holiness. Thus he tells us that “I would drift into the play when I judged it safely over, and dive onto the pile, so that it seemed I was all over the field making tackles, whereas really I was happily jumping on my teammates, who didn’t seem to mind… and now that I think about it, I see that I had practiced this very thing for years with my many brothers; about half our childhood, I would guess, was spent in wriggling piles and jumbles of limbs.” He remembers “a small statue that may or may not have been Jesus, presented to me in sixth-grade basketball, although the coach, one of the dads, and not one of the dads who had ever played or seen basketball played before, it turned out, told me that if it was Jesus, which he was not totally sure it was, it was a rare case of a long lean Jesus portrayed in tight gym shorts, sculpted as if he, basketball Jesus, had just launched a jump shot, his right hand following through correctly so as to impart backspin on the ball.” And he writes of his mother, who was usually “gently amused, or mildly entertained, or bemused, but occasionally she lost it completely, and fell into helpless giggling, so much so that she would actually weep with laughter, which is maybe the most infectious thing in the whole world, someone you love just totally completely utterly helpless with uncontrollable merriment, which finally shudders and staggers to a halt, although you keep bursting into smaller fits for a while, like a thunderstorm petering out in fitful showers.”

One of the oldest “heh heh” emails I found, from eight years ago, I had stored in my “todo” folder, which I named thusly for its different yet sequential interpretations in English and Spanish, so that the infinitive question “to do” becomes the daunting answer “todo,” everything. I had suggested that perhaps Brian’s proem “On the difficulty of translating the American writer Brian Doyle” might work well as a translation, and I’d offered, perhaps too ambitiously, certainly naively, to translate it into Spanish, which Brian agreed would be funny, but, unsurprisingly, I never did it. Here, then, is a halfhearted half-attempt:
Primero de todo, el estilo es incomprensible; ¿que está pensando
Con estas frases elefantinas? ¿Tiene miedo a los puntos de puntuación
O que? ¿Y que hay con la adicción al punto-y-coma y el ampersand,
Leía solo Blake y Gibbons como niño?
I don’t think there’s a word for ampersand in Spanish, I can’t find one anyway, so I’ll abandon my translation here, return it to the vast collection of things left undone. For all his manic finishing of things, Brian was also utterly mellow. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.

The shortest email contains, in a font so small I couldn’t read it without pumping it up electronically, “A Tiny Poem,” the entirety of which reads:
What if someone wrote a poem
So tiny no one can read it—is it
A poem then, or something else
Altogether, for which we do not
Have any words to make poems
This is a common theme in these pieces: the necessary futility of words to approach mystery, which is of course located in the “Coherent Mercy,” but also in all of us. Considering with his son whether “Box Elder Bugs [Are] Happy for George Clooney?” on Wed, Nov. 12, 2014, Brian exhorts us to
Imagine for a moment if all that could be said of us was our average size, and coloring, and eating habits, and predators, and the arrangement of our wings, and what direction we liked to face when basking in the fading autumnal light; would that say anything of what and who and why we are? No? Then join me, for a sidelong moment, right now, in wondering at the vast wealth of what we do not know about even the beings we see every day around us… In a real sense such a roaring absence of knowledge is a great gift, for it leads to wondering, and wonder is a lovely place to be.
The emails remain for me a source of inspiration, but that’s an easy word, one we toss back and forth with everything from pop songs to soap commercials. So let me agree that wonder is a lovely place to be, and let me affirm that although I am saddened that there will be no new messages from my dear friend, I trust that he remains somewhere, just out of reach, and I am cheered that his notes still impart a measure of his pure enthusiasm, a better word I think, as it suggests its etymology, through the Renaissance (“literary inspiration”) to ancient Greece, when and where to be en-thused was to be “inspired or possessed by God,” whom perhaps we experience primarily in each other, as Brian would often say.

Another thing he would often say, and which he said precisely on Fri, Sep. 6, 2013, at 3:43 PM, PDT, is “one of the things I like best about good essays…is that they know where to end,” so I will end with the penultimate “heh heh heh,” from Fri, Dec. 11, 2015—the only wordless one, one quite germane to our seasonal purpose here—in hopes that it will evoke an enthusiastic chuckle:

Brian Doyle was a dad, a dad, a dad, a husband, a son, a brother, a friend, a basketball nut, and a citizen, who edited the University of Portland's alumni magazine for a quarter century and wrote twenty-eight books of essays, novels, stories, proems, and prayers. His essays, which often appeared in Orion, Harper's, The American Scholar, The Atlantic, and many other journals, were reprinted in the Best American Essays seven times, as well as the Best American Spiritual Writing, the Best American Science and Nature Writing, and other anthologies. He was awarded the Oregon Book Award, the John Burroughs Medal, a literature award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and several other prizes. Brian died of brain cancer in May 2017.
Patrick Madden is the author of two essay collections, Sublime Physick and Quotidiana, and co-editor of After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays. He curates and, with David Lazar, edits the 21st Century Essays series at the Ohio State University Press.

Read lots of Brian Doyle's essays at:


  1. Thanks for bringing Brian's burgeoning brilliance back to us, albeit briefly.

    1. I'm glad you joined me for the reminiscence, Dinty.

  2. Thank you for sharing Brian Doyle's humane spirit, boisterous good will and generous sense of God. A perfect Advent calendar entry for today.

  3. Essay advent calendar easily translates for me into daily meditations with Patrick. I’m in!

  4. Let’s see if you can figure out who this is
    Heh heh heh heh

    1. "It's a drab baj?" I'm stumped. But I appreciate the comments.