This conjunction of birthdays (my son Ben and my friend Sam) leads me, today, to think about friendship and family.
Father/Son relationships are difficult in as many ways as they are rewarding. “Your mum and dad,” as Philip Larkin famously wrote, “they fuck you up.” I’ve certainly done that to and for my son Ben. And, fortunately for me, he has been generous and gracious in the face of decisions I’ve made that complicate his life (the divorce, for example). With his own exploits he has eclipsed my claims to fame on a mountain bike and on back-country skis. He has flourished in a field he has chosen (as have each of his siblings) and has shared that with me (as far as I’m able to follow the science). He is a patient and wise father.
Today I’d like to celebrate that fact that Ben is alive, alive to the world more intensely than most of us are. You can see that in his face in these three photos. He’s not just smiling for the camera. He’s happy to be alive. And I’m grateful to be his father.
Sam Rushforth has been my friend for going on 30 years. Friendships aren’t easy either. If you’re lucky, and I have been, a friendship broadens and deepens your experience, challenges you in productive ways, provides solace and support and inspiration.
I’ve been putting together a set of essays I published while teaching at BYU, most of them attempts to argue against decisions that were progressively destroying a university I loved. I’ll call the book “Personal Encounters with Mormon Institutions.” Sam and I were a good team in those efforts at BYU. When I was denied promotion because of my work, Sam stepped in as my faculty advocate. At the appeal, knowing there wasn’t a chance in hell the administration would reverse its decision based on “the ridicule I had brought to the university,” we had a good time making our point that BYU had lost its way. Among my papers I recently found the powerful 7-page, single-spaced opening statement Sam made and will quote a paragraph here, grateful to be seen this way by a man whose friendship I cherish:
Because Professor Abbott has pointed out some of the problems at Brigham Young University, he has been accused of being a contentious critic. This is absurd. Professor Abbott is a true optimist in the sense of Albert Schweitzer. He returned to Brigham Young University, leaving a tenured position at Vanderbilt in order to devote himself to the growth and expanding excellence of our institution. Professor Abbott has worked for the betterment of this university in every way. He is a consummate academic. But equally important, he has been willing to see the future in new ways. He has been willing to examine the past and point out our errors, not for any spurious or malicious reason but because he thinks we can be better. Scott came to Brigham Young University because he holds a vision of our institution that is better than reality. And he has the courage and drive to work toward the realization of that alternative Brigham Young University.
Like Ben, Sam is more alive than most of us. You can see that in these photos (well, except for the one where Sam has lost momentum riding up the Great Western Trail in Provo Canyon — a sideways turn that works as a good metaphor for moments in our lives when we need a little push from a friend).