Everyone Needs A Brian

Brian Naghski looking serious.

There are many basic needs in this world. To begin with: We need air, shelter, water, and food. After that, a sense of purpose, a reason to live. Friendship. And finally – hopefully – someone to love who also loves you in return.

It’s not quite as simple as that. Humans also need community, stories, physical activity, positive interactions, and healthy boundaries. Goals, successes, failures, curiosity, opportunities to learn, time in the natural world, hobbies, sunlight, etc.

And, in my opinion – and this is very, very important – everyone needs a Brian. To be more specific, everyone needs a Brian Naghski.

Brian lead-climbing.

Just to be clear at the start, I don’t call Brian “Brian.” I call him “Bri Bri” (pronounced with two long “I” sounds) or, sometimes, I call him “My Bri Bri.” Because he’s that wonderful.

First of all, Bri Bri’s laugh is amazing. Everyone who knows him talks about his laugh, about how it sounds, about how great it is. It’s loud and infectious. When he laughs, other people laugh too. But since laughs are difficult to describe, I can only say that when Bri Bri laughs, all the people around him get a look on their faces like when people watch puppies do something ridiculous and cute.

Also, Bri Bri gets excited about any adventure. If I suggest a ten-mile off-trail navigation course in the desert, he’s in. Better yet, he emails me before we go, writing: “By the way, I really like hiking in the dark.” Going into a difficult adventure, he’s hoping to navigate by the stars.

Or if it’s a white-water rafting trip through a canyon, he writes, “When are you going? I wanna make that happen!”

Or a winter snow-survival trip? He writes, “You know how I love to sleep in snow caves, Don Pedro!”

Bri Bri is endlessly positive and completely unguarded. If he thinks something is awesome, he says, “That’s just AWESOME!!!” He doesn’t care who’s nearby, and he doesn’t care what they think. He’s himself at all times.

He also wants to hear any good story. Even though he’s a slow reader, he wants to read great books. He asks me for summer reading lists and for short, during-the-year reading suggestions. And if I giggle while reading a book next to him in my camp chair, he says, “Hey, when are you gonna loan that book to me?”

Bri Bri’s tall and heavy. He’s a BIG guy. He was a heavyweight wrestler in high school and a defender on a college lacrosse team. Rock climbing isn’t easier for bigger people, so when Bri Bri rock climbs, he has to battle. But that’s what he does. He sweats and grunts and works at it. And if he doesn’t get a route, he gets back on it and tries again a few minutes later. He’s happy to try hard and he’s fine with gasping for air, pumping out his forearms, or feeling his calves quiver. When he climbs, he wants to do some work.

But he’s not just into adventures. Bri Bri brews good beer and shares it with his friends. He loves his wife Kara and his two kids. He scarfs food and chugs coffee. He has a great New Jersey accent, and he believes in building community anywhere he goes.

We used to work together. When Bri Bri was a licensed SPED teacher at the high school where I taught Language Arts, he’d regularly come into my speech class where we had a rule that any visitor – adult or teenager – had to give a short impromptu speech on a topic of the class’s choosing when they first entered the room. It was a tough rule, especially for Bri Bri. He’s not a natural public speaker – and he gets a little nervous sometimes in front of big groups – but he always took on the challenge, and spoke on any topic we gave him, even though our topics were pretty ridiculous sometimes.

Because Bri Bri’s real and honest about his struggles, he understands people, and people connect with him as well. Kids at his new high school say he’s their favorite teacher. One of his students told me, “He gets so excited, and he’s always SO nice to everybody.” I know how his students feel because Bri Bri was my favorite colleague. When he came across a broken-zippered, duct-taped, neon-green down jacket, he knew it was the perfect present for me. And not for my birthday because Bri Bri just gives out presents at random times throughout the year.

Bri Bri and his skis, volunteering with my outdoor program.

We don’t get to hang out too often. Bri Bri has his family and I have mine. We teach at different schools. He coaches youth sports and I run a leadership program. He travels back to the east coast to see his family and I spend a lot of time writing or adventuring with my family. But if we do get a chance to hang out, I always try to take it. Because time with Bri Bri is time well spent.

So yesterday was Bri Bri’s birthday, and for his birthday, Bri Bri wanted to hang out together, to share food and rock climb at our local crag, just the two of us. He wanted to meet me in the morning and not be in a rush. He wanted to climb a few routes, talk for a while, climb a few more routes, then talk some more.

When I showed up, he was rappelling down to the bottom of the main buttress. I met him on the ground and pointed to his ancient climbing rope. It’s at least 10-years old, thickening and shaggy and a pale, faded red color. I said, “I see you bought yourself a new rope.”

He pointed to the t-shirt I was wearing – a surf shirt he knew I found on the ground that had holes in the shoulders – and he said, “I see you bought yourself a new t-shirt.”

Then I got to hear his amazing laugh while we hugged. After that, he handed me a breakfast burrito that he’d bought for me as if it was my birthday morning. And to be honest, it sort of was. There really wasn’t a better way to start a day than hanging out with My Bri Bri.

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How To Read More Books

This is the best article I’ve read on reading in a long time (and it’s not about being a faster reader):

“8 Ways To Read A Lot More Books This Year” by Neil Pasricha

My Mother, The Oil Painter Pamela C. Hoffmeister

My mother has always been an artist. My whole life. Before I was old enough to remember anything, she carried me on her back to her Bachelor’s Fine Arts classes at the University of Oregon.
Then – when we lived on the outskirts of Tucson – she made mobiles out of copper wires and bones I scavenged in the desert for her. When we lived in a refugee’s hostel in Zurich, she drew every day. When we lived in Seattle, she painted on my bedroom walls.
When I was a kid, my mother threw pottery, painted portraits, sketched in her journal, sketched in the margins of books, sketched on loose pieces of junk mail sitting on the counter.
My mother smells like charcoal, oil paint, thinner, and stretched canvas. Walking into her studio is like walking into my childhood.
And when my mother wasn’t painting or drawing, she was reading aloud to us. So many books. Reading to us on the porch, reading to us in our beds, in the park, or at the kitchen table. Reading aloud to us as she drove the Buick we bought for $1.
My mother’s reverence for artists was only matched by her reverence for authors and the written word.
Because my mother is who she is, I memorized poems as a child. Wrote stories. Journaled. My mother taught me Greek and Latin roots. We examined art and process. She told me stories about authors, their failures and successes. Their doubts. Selling zero stories and hiding from the landlord.
We didn’t have a television when I was little, and I didn’t want to grow up to be in movies. I didn’t want to be a celebrity. I just wanted to write words that would someday be in a book that my mother would read. I knew that book would be a novel. Something worthy of her.
When I finally had a book that I thought was well-written enough to dedicate to my mother (my fifth book – my novel Too Shattered For Mending), I did exactly what I planned. I dedicated it to my mother.
And today – as I write this on Mothers’ Day – my mother is doing exactly what she’s always done. She’s painting every day, and becoming more and more prolific as she settles in to what she’s always been: An artist.

Happy Birthday, Toni Morrison

It is Toni Morrison’s 88th birthday today, February 18th. Hard to believe that she’s 88, but we all march toward death – the unavoidable – and hopefully she won’t go soon.

My favorite Toni Morrison novels in order:

  1. A Mercy (I know this is a controversial choice, but I’ve read it four times and I know what I know)
  2. Beloved (Pulitzer Prize, 1988)
  3. Song Of Solomon (National Book Critics Circle Award, 1977)

On writing novels, Morrison once famously said, “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Thank goodness that she chose to write rather than continuing as a book editor. Her work on other writers’ novels would never have equaled her ability as a writer.

Also:

Dear Ms. Morrison,

If you would like to get together and talk about writing, I would love to drink coffee or tea with you.

Please contact me through my agent (or directly here at this website).

Thank you.

Love,

Don Pedro

Rest In Peace, Mary Oliver

Photograph of Mary Oliver raising a glass at her home, Pembroke Lodge, Richmond [1930s] by Eileen Agar 1899-1991

Although Mary Oliver won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, she was never respected by serious critics the way she deserved. For example, she was never given a full-length review by The New York Times. She earned a full-length review from the Times but did not receive one.

To be clear though, Oliver wouldn’t have cared about this. She wasn’t in love with mere things. Instead, she loved the natural world, geese, the sun, grasshoppers, and – of course – her dogs (I’ve gone through her poems and attempted to count her dog companions, and it’s impossible. She rescued too many to count).

Mary Oliver passed away today at the age of 83. What she left behind is incredible.

For people who don’t know much of her work, here’s a short poem called “Praying”:

Praying

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

– Mary Oliver

oliver

And for readers who don’t know her work at all, here is her most famous poem:

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

– Mary Oliver