Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Paterfamilias

Decades ago, reporters pestered the flamboyant former Louisiana Gov. Huey Long to define himself.  Exasperated, he said, “Say I’m sui generis and let it go at that.”  Sui generis is a Latin phrase meaning, “one of a kind.”  That phrase certainly applies to David George Yount.  But I have another Latin phrase in mind when I think of him.  In the wonderful comedy, O Brother, Where Art Thou, the George Clooney character at one point declares to his daughters, “I am the damn paterfamilias.”  A paterfamilias is literally the male head of the family, but it can refer to a leader of any sort. I’ve already almost exhausted my knowledge of Latin, but I think that term captures my friend Dave as well as any. In my life, Dave was often a leader, he sometimes filled a fatherly role, but most of all he was a good friend.

I always thought that people who get nostalgic about high school need a lobotomy.  We all remember what high school’s like.  It’s like spending four years at the DMV.  It’s like being in a leaking lifeboat.  I met Dave in high school, in an English class called, “What Makes Man Laugh?”  Dave was hard to miss.  He had nearly a foot on me in height.  He already had a deep, resonant voice and an enormous laugh.  Like me, he had what might be characterized as an eclectic sense of fashion.  I’ve never watched it, but apparently there’s a show about models called Project Runway.  A show about us back then would have been called Project Runaway.  We had that disheveled, homeless chic going.  Dave and I were both juniors and he was one of the first people in high school to approach me for friendship.  I didn’t know it then, but Dave’s friendly gesture would be one of the most important moments in my life.

Not everyone at North Garland High School was exactly Mensa material, but it immediately became apparent that Dave would be more than a match for me intellectually.  We both loved cutting edge comedians like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce and reading the National Lampoon.  Conversations with him were sometimes like a seminar on art, classical music, movies, and literature.  We were teenagers, but he could already hold forth on the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, debate the relative merits of Vincent Van Gogh and Salvador Dali, and break down scene-by-scene the films of Stanley Kubrick. 

Dave wouldn’t go to college until his thirties, but he already knew more than most people with bachelor degrees.   Dave gave one of his greatest gifts when he introduced me to the author Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut became a big influence on me as a writer.  Dave and I would spend countless evenings at the Grenada Theater in Dallas watching the movies of Charlie Chaplin or Orson Wells, or amazing early silent films like Metropolis.  In Dave’s company, I was getting as good an education as I would later receive in college.
Even if I was as emotionally stable back then as Lindsey Lohan, these were good times and Dave’s friendship gave me great happiness.  I had an emotionally troubled, mentally unstable mother and a distant, often physically absent father and Dave became a kind of father figure to me, a real paterfamilias.  During my best times with Dave and my high school friends, I could say, to quote Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse-Five,  “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.”

Most of us went to college after high school.  Dave got a job with the father of one of his high school friends trading commodities during the heyday of that marketplace in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  It didn’t last, but for a time Dave made very good money. When the money came rolling in, Dave’s first gesture was, before he was 20, to buy a nice, big suburban house for his entire family – his mother Margaret, and his sisters Cheryl, Pam, and Linda.  That was classic Dave, to immediately share his good fortunes with everyone.

I spent so much time over there I almost had my mail forwarded to that address.  Dave’s house became the party house.   Dave had all the cutting edge electronic stuff, like that super cool Atari game system that had that computer game with the stunningly realistic graphics, Pong.  Dave brought the coolest car we ever rode in – a blue Chrysler New Yorker the size of a Sherman tank, and he drove us everywhere in style.   Dave always had his wallet out, paying for everyone’s dinner, helping a friend out if he or she was in a tough financial spot.  Sometimes when people do this they are being manipulative and desperate for attention.  I can honestly say that I never saw Dave ask for or expect anything in return for his generosity.  Dave was like that when he didn’t have money.  He was like that when he had money.  And he was like that when he didn’t have money again.

Dave was generous not just with money, but also with his time.  Many of us took hours of his life to complain about our jobs, our romantic problems, our bosses, our romantic problems, our car issues, and our romantic problems.  Let’s face it. None of us was destined to be named People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive.”  Speaking just for me, I thought I had reached first base when the women I was pursuing didn’t file a restraining order.  We carried broken hearts to Dave and he patiently listened, offered the best advice he could as someone who was also often looking in vain for love.

Dave always reminded us of what he liked about us.  Our circle of friends had a frequently mean “put-down” culture.  It was our version of machismo.  We’d sometimes heartlessly insult each other as a way of flashing our wit and showing how tough we were.   Dave was the one friend in our circle who knew almost instantly when he had crossed a line.  He would pull his punches and he was the least reluctant amongst us to say he was sorry and to try to comfort someone whose feelings had been hurt. 

It’s no secret that Dave sometimes had the teeniest tendency to be a know-it-all.  But we were geeks before the word was coined, wounded souls who often doubted if they measured up.  We needed Dave’s braggadocio.  To quote Vonnegut again, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Dave had the guts to pretend he was in charge when he wasn’t and that gave him the power sometimes to change the reality around him.  Even when he failed, he taught me a lesson.  And when Dave thought he had THE answer, he was a sight to behold.

Dave once told me to not tell anyone about this, but I think he’ll forgive me for sharing this now.  Dave at one point in the late 1980s joined a consciousness-raising group that was a spin-off of est called “One, Incorporated.”  Dave became the John the Baptist and the St. Paul of One.  I am an extreme skeptic, yet Dave was able to convince me to spend first a weekend and then most of a week locked in a hotel conference room with few bathroom and meal breaks, listening to the emotional pain of hopelessly dysfunctional, fearful neurotics.  This experience was great preparation for graduate school.  Anyway, all the weirdness and dubious amateur psychology involved in the group aside, there was a beautiful, healthy, and incredibly simple idea at the core of One, Incorporated: the idea that beliefs about yourself can create limits on your potential.  Dave found the group liberating and tried to sign up everyone for his seminars because he hoped he could bring people he loved happiness.

At that time, Dave was almost as devoted to the Dallas Mavericks.  The team had a talented but volatile and often underperforming forward named Mark Aguire.  Dave, who was in his late twenties, convinced himself that One Incorporated provided the path for Aguire to achieve his full potential greatness.  Dave put on a business suit, carried a briefcase with information he had written up about the group and entered the Mavericks’ front office confidently asking to speak to the team’s head coach Dick Motta as he began to sing the praises of One Incorporated.  If he had worn a white shirt and arrived on a bicycle, people would have mistaken him for the gutsiest New Age Mormon of all time.   

He never got past the front office and I’m sure the receptionist and Mavericks security probably thought he was completely crazy.  Dave was a little embarrassed about this later on, though in Dave fashion, he never quite admitted that.  I thought the story was beautiful.  In many ways, it inspired me.  I’ve spent a lifetime tilting at windmills. Dave wanted to make a team he loved NBA champions and he had the guts to believe he could play a part in achieving that. 

I teach, and my students are often shackled by insecurity.  I wish I could splice a sliver of Dave’s confidence in their souls. Dave was haunted by doubts like all of us, but even if he never completely slew that dragon, he crippled it with the other side of his personality that overflowed with confidence and only occasionally outsized ambition.

A former poet laureate of the United States, Philip Levine, also died this past month.  He once wrote a poem that came to mind when I heard that my good friend Dave Yount had died:

I was living far off two years

ago, fifteen floors above

119th Street when I heard

a love of my young manhood

had died mysteriously in

a public ward. I did not

go out into the streets to

walk among the cold, sullen

poor of Harlem, I did not

turn toward the filthy window

to question a distant pale sky.

I did not do anything.

The grass is coming back, some

patches already bright, though

at this hour still silvered

with dew. By noon I can stand

sweating in the free air, spading

the difficult clay for the bare

roots of a pear or apple that

will give flower and fruit longer

than I care to think about.

I miss you, Dave.  The world is a little more cold and sullen without you.  But because of that incredible self-belief, that confidence you showed so often in your life, I know that one day the grass will grow back and leaden skies will brighten even if your absence will always weigh down my heart.  I love you.  Goodbye, my friend.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001.  (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(With Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.