His Subtle Speech

A gentle nudge at the fork of the road


As I recall, I received my acceptance letter from the University of Notre Dame in autumn, having applied for early admission, and after a few days of euphoria at having been accepted to the very college every Catholic kid in America wanted to attend, I began to rethink the whole idea. Follow my clear and simple reasoning: if I was going to play professional basketball, which was a sure and certain thing, despite the fact that I was only 70 inches tall, with dense eyeglasses, a long ponytail, and no noticeable musculature, then I would need to be noticed as a college basketball player, because the pros would never draft a bench player, and even in my wildest cocky concept of myself, I could not picture myself starring for the University of Notre Dame, so there I would be a bench player, whereas if I went to another school, I could be a star, and be noticed, and be drafted, and make my way as a professional, for maybe 10 years or so, until my considerable skills would begin to decline infinitesimally, at which point I would write novels, and become an esteemed man of letters, and be interviewed by diligent graduate students, and be quoted in the leading papers here and there, always eloquently and piercingly and wittily, and have just enough money to live by the sea, but not so much that I would be rich, because being rich would be unseemly for a serious writer, which is what I would be.

Got all that? Yes? So you will understand why I went to my dad one day, as he sat in the living room with his newspapers, and announced that I was going to decline my acceptance from Notre Dame, and instead attend Canisius College, or Saint Bonaventure University, or another school not noted for basketball, because then I could be a star, and get noticed by the pros, and etc., as above.

My dad is a quiet gentle wry calm wise subtle man who never ever made a snide or cutting remark that I heard, and never laughs aloud at flaming idiocy even when it is served to him hot on a platter.

“You’ve thought this through?” said my dad, peering over the edge of the paper.

“I have,” I said, and went through my clear and simple reasoning again, thinking that Pop, then in his early 50s, was maybe getting a little shaggy around the mental edges already.

“Might Notre Dame be disappointed?”

“They’ll be fine, Pop. I’m sure they have a waiting list. Some kid will be thrilled.”

“And Canisius and Saint Bonaventure, do they know of this plan?”

“Not yet. I’ll call.”

“You’ve been in touch with their lucky coaches?”

“I’ll call,” I said, thinking that Pop was getting a little fixated on minor details.

There was a long pause here, and I clearly remember my dad carefully folding up the newspapers, and stacking them on the couch, and leaning forward a little like a coach does when he wants to impart some wisdom, and then he said, gently, “Well, as you know, I am not much for sports, and I am sure you know far more about how you might proceed from college into the professional ranks. And while you are aware how delighted your mother and I are at your acceptance to Notre Dame, it is, of course, your decision as to where to go to college. We will do our best to help and support your college education, wherever that takes place. But I should say that while I am not, as you know, much for sports, I am not generally aware that the professional ranks are overly populated nor noticeably dominated by guys who are 70 inches tall with eyeglasses and ponytails. I could be wrong about this, because, as you know, I am not much for sports, and certainly not as up to speed as you are about the professional ranks. I understand we have two professional teams in New York, one of which must play near 33rd Street, for I notice a press of what seem to be basketball fans occasionally as I make my evening train. Gregarious folk, and they occasionally chant and sing most vociferously. I suppose people have enjoyed this custom for thousands of years. Perhaps fans approached the Colosseum in Rome in the same fervent and anticipatory fashion. Perhaps so.”

And that was the end of that conversation. Two days later I realized that my dad, wry and patient as always, had gently called me an idiot, which I was, and the next day I thanked him, and we sent in the check that secured my place at the University of Notre Dame. I was, in the end, thrilled and moved and changed forever by my education there, primarily by the extraordinary friends I met, but even now, many years later, I often smile to think that my road came to a fork one day in our living room, and my dad’s subtle speech pointed me the right way, for which I thanked him then, and have thanked him since, and thank him again this morning.

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Brian Doyle, an essayist and novelist, died on May 27, 2017. To read Epiphanies, his longtime blog for the Scholar, please go here.


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