Wise man’s misdirection

Author: Brian Doyle ’78

It was my dad who brought me to college for my admissions interview. The college was 700 miles from our house. We drove through the night. I was 17. My father was younger than I am now. It was autumn. The college campus was the most collegiate campus you could ever imagine. It was exactly what you thought a college campus would be. It was obviously a set for a film about college. There were boys wearing letterman jackets. There were girls sprawled on the grass reading philosophy. There were maples with flaming red leaves and oaks with flaming gold leaves and elms looking down superciliously on the showy lesser trees. I saw a priest wearing a flowing cassock that went down to his ankles. I pointed this out to my dad, who said quietly ah, vestis talaris, and on we went. It had never occurred to me then that there were dads who did not casually lapse into Latin.

illustration by Nolan Pelletier

We approached the main administration building. There was a tall lean church next door. I noted that the church was epic, and my dad said it is a lovely structure with one of the most beautiful naves I have ever seen. Usually the bigger the church the more vulgar and pompous it is, but this one is at least dignified, if not particularly humble. Humilis, humilitas, those are the words that should be engraved on every church and every heart, but rarely is that the case, sadly. I think we are here.

The inside of the main administration building was all old stern gleaming wood, and the stairs creaked alarmingly, and the chairs were worn and comfortable. The lady at the reception desk was friendly and leathery and had the most amazing purple eyeglasses with what appeared to be tiny winking rhinestones. We were early and sat back to wait, and my dad said I do not know why people call those sorts of spectacles librarian spectacles. I have never yet seen a librarian wearing such spectacular spectacles. Librarians in my experience are a straightforward tribe who prefer utilitarian spectacles if they need spectacles at all. Another cliché is that librarians all have retention cords for their spectacles, but I have never yet seen a librarian with such cords, have you? Such cords would properly be referred to as spectacular cords, don’t you think? Spectaculi funibus, in the Latin.

Only much later did I realize that my dad was deliberately trying to make me relax, trying to nudge me away from the momentousness of the moment, trying to make me smile, trying to send me into the interview grinning instead of sweating; and that is what happened. The last thing he said to me before my name was called and I walked alone into the interview room was this: But wait, is it cliché or trope that would be the right word there? For the spectacular cords?

I have not the slightest memory of my admissions interview, of the interviewer, of the questions, of my answers, of even the room where the interview took place, though that was, in a real sense, a birthing room. I was soon admitted, and I loved my college experience, and made dear and wonderful friends, and started off on imaginative and spiritual roads I hope to wander all my days; but all these years later what I remember best, with awe at such grace, is the gentle wise wry man who sat next to me in the worn and comfortable chairs, who declined politely to accompany me when the admissions lady asked if he wanted to sit in on the interview, who did his level best to make me smile as I strolled away from him into the rest of my life. No, no, he said courteously to the lady; he is on his own, he’s ready. Paratus, in the Latin.

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland and the author of many books, most recently the essay collections Reading in Bed (Corby Books) and So Very Much the Best of Us .