(Please note there is a video at the bottom of this post of John Gray reading a short, humorous essay from this collection called “Red End.”)
“You’ve heard it said that you never get a second chance to make a good first impression. The fact is that when you first meet a person, he makes a judgment about you in approximately four seconds, and his judgment is finalized largely within 30 seconds of the initial contact.”
I’ve heard it said that you learn everything you need to know about a person in the first four seconds of your first meeting. There have been long stretches of time in the forty plus years I have known John Gray where I doubted that folk wisdom.
However, this excellent collection of essays If I Die Thursday proves that my introductory seconds weren’t totally wrong: John was playing a guitar and singing with great good humor a Homer and Jethro song, “Momma, don’t whup little Buford! I think you should shoot him instead!”
Not that Homer and Jethro were his music genre of choice but that the fractured folk song appealed to his–and my–sense of appreciation for the cracks in the cement of the everyday where surprising and often funny stories emerge.
This book is John’s book of stories that have come out of the steam vents of memory and imagination–for he has stirred together both essays and short stories in this, his second collection: His first was Gift of Seeds.
It’s funny how you think you know somebody and years later, they turn out to be this completely other person. In our case, it was because of the nature of our relationship for the ten years we both lived at Glen Ivy, an intentional community based on spiritual values and teachings. Gray refers to this time only briefly in this book, leaving lots of stories as yet untold.
In that somewhat insular world, John was married-with-children; I was emphatically single.
He was the focalizer/head honcho/ramrod/ male, top-of-the-pecking-order type person. I was not in his inner circle, but nor was I beyond the pale. I was just there in the mix having the adventure of a lifetime. There was a distinct patriarchal hierarchy, and that shaded the John I knew in those days.
I saw him as an inspirational extemporaneous speaker who could make funny and poignant spiritual lessons out of walking to the corner drugstore for an ice cream. He gave the 80 plus of us so many of these hour long talks that I think the time frame shaped his story telling. He came to know how many beats made a scene and how to build multiple related stories up to a payoff that had more emotional resonance than a mere punchline.
In those days, my one-on-one contact with John was just about never social. I was a monthly reporter for our worldwide newsletter, so once a month we got together to decide what events to include. I’d write a draft, and he’d edit. He was really picky about getting the facts right. This was essential training for me that paid off a thousand fold in my career-to-come as a college writing instructor.
Honestly, as much as I adored John as a leader and mentor in those days, my overwhelming impression of him was that he was a nervous fellow–just the opposite of what I know of him today. I always got twitchy being around him. But the John I know now, the author of these fine essays and stories, is really nothing like that. The John I know now is relaxed, convivial and funny. I’ve concluded that of course I may have just been totally wrong in my perception of him in those days, or that under the many pressures of leadership, he was a somewhat different person. And all of this memory is irrevocably hazed over by the leader/follower roles.
This book comes right up out of the wellspring of John’s authentic self, well-crafted with a strong voice full of memory, compassion, and humor.
My favorite essay is the title eponymous “If I Die Thursday.” It is a thought experiment Gray has about what he would do if he knew he only had three days to live. Of course there is humor, but I appreciate the complexity that comes with the addition of other voices and the terrifying darkness of nightmares.
“A dream, I tell myself three times. Just a dream. But I feel rattled to the core” (82).
There are stories in If I Die Thursday that are really extended anecdotes, stories from John’s Levittown, New York, childhood, like the really pretty funny “I Was Never in Rona’s Closet.”
But others dive deeper; for example, into social justice: “The Fresh Air Kid” puts human kid faces on race issues in predominantly white Levittown circa 1960.
“Right there in white-bread Levittown, [a local bully] spewed racial epithets marinated in raw acrimony. The menacing group had the feel of a lynch mob” (37).
Gray also tells fiction stories in addition to essays, but they all sound like him talking– about being retired and fighting The Battle of the Bulge, notably in “Gourmet Gourmand Gang.” In that story, John and his wife Pamela are out for lunch with foodie friends. The Grays order salads while their friends down Kobe burgers and fries:
“Now there were two genuine Kobe burgers right at our table [resting on] embankments of garlic-and-truffle-oil French fries, each serving sufficient for a family of four….I drooled on my greens…” (105).
A couple of essays honor friends who have passed on, including “Movin’ Mike” about Pamela Gray’s motorcycle record speed setter dad, Mike McCann (126 miles per hour in 1969 out on the Bonneville Salt Flats). This essay is surprisingly but effectively bookended with Pamela’s reaction shots, as they say in the movies. Keeping the daughter in the frame doubles the emotional punch of the ending.
Gray goes on a “Bucket List Cruise” with an old friend, Jim Wellemeyer, dying of cancer, which, while very moving, convinced me that if I ever found myself in a similar situation, spending a week eating and strolling on deck a Princess liner would probably not be my bucket list item of choice. But Jim wants to say something important to John, and that is the source of gentle dramatic tension in this travel journal essay.
One of John’s trademarks is a self-deprecating humor. His jokes are almost always at his own expense. In “American Distress,” he pokes fun at himself for purchasing a couple of holiday rental timeshares that became increasingly expensive as the years went by.
“Buying a vacation resort timeshare was the dumbest financial decision I ever made. Buying a second timeshare was the first” (9).
However, the story, once set up as a mistake at his expense, turns itself around and cuts back on itself. In fact, it seems like the Grays and their family and friends (not including me, I must say–what was up with that!?) fully enjoyed these timeshares for years. The takeaway I got was while expensive, the timeshares were well worth it in terms of fun and memories in the long run. Kinda made me want to run right out and buy me a timeshare.
People ought to be reading If I Die Thursday not just for their own entertainment (well, that comes first, of course), but to get a feel for the archeological layers of a life, how one artifact after another, one story on top of another accretes to shape a lifetime.
I don’t know about you, but reading often shows me something new about myself. John Gray shows me how to laugh at myself while at the same time thinking deeply about the little things in life that give it richness, texture, and emotional expansion.