Here & there: Putting 50 into context

One of the Dayton boys holding the first of five signs placed at five different birthday scavenger hunt locations. Salt Lake City, Utah, April 22, 2018. | Photo by Simplicity Photography, courtesy of Kat Dayton, St. George News

FEATURE — My husband turned 50 last Sunday. We have a tradition of finding presents by scavenger hunt for every birthday in our family. Normally, that means running around the house at the behest of rhyming clues to uncover presents.

The start of Alan Dayton’s 50th birthday scavenger hunt, Salt Lake City, Utah, April 22, 2018 | Photo by Simplicity Photography, courtesy of Kat Dayton, St. George News

But for 50, I thought more was required: a 50-mile scavenger hunt around town by car. And for 50, our normal silly rhyming clues weren’t quite enough either; for 50, there should be context.

So, over the course of those 50 miles, the clues not only led my husband to the next destination but also told his story. Well, some of it anyway. And all of it a bit cheeky.

The rhyming clues talked about his wild upbringing in Ogden, being the youngest boy in his troop’s history to earn the Eagle Scout award and how when he passed the Utah Bar Exam it felt like less of an accomplishment and more like dodging a bullet.

Once he decoded a clue and arrived at the proper location, he found a sign with the next clue affixed to the back. On the front of the sign was a list of 10 things his family loves about him. There were five signs in total.

Our 8-year-old said he “loves that he is so funny.” Our 11-year-old said he “loves that his dad loves records and has taught him to love records, too.” And our 14-year-old said he “loves that his dad taught him to mow the lawn,” starting as early as age 3 with a toy lawn mower trailing behind his dad’s real one.

Why was it so important to include all of this in a silly birthday scavenger hunt – why do these stories matter anyway?

I recently heard classicist Daniel Mendelsohn interviewed by RadioWest’s Doug Fabrizio. The interview, a discussion around Mendelsohn’s recent memoir, “An Odyssey: a father, a son and an epic,” goes beyond that story and delves into the great abyss of context.

Like any good origin story, the book begins with a conflict: Daniel Mendelsohn’s father, Jay, wants to audit his son’s freshman lecture series on Homer’s “Odyssey” at Bard College.

The story simmers as the uncompromising Jay, who had promised to sit and listen – not comment – in class, does nothing of the sort. It develops further when the father-and-son duo take an “Odyssey”-inspired Mediterranean cruise. And finally, it crescendos when, just a year later, Jay dies from complications from a fall.

Through the arch of the book, and with the backdrop of the “Odyssey,” Daniel Mendelsohn sees his father in a different light. He understands him anew.

It’s a siren song for the idea of context.

There is a poignant part of the book that underscores the incredible importance of context: Daniel Mendelsohn and his mother are in the neuro-ICU with Jay, who at this point is very sick. A doctor comes in to review the films and charts of his patient with the family but Daniel’s mother doesn’t want to talk about those things; she wants to talk about how her husband, her love, ended up in the ICU.

She talks about a fall in the parking lot of a local grocery store around Thanksgiving – that’s when it all started. She didn’t know at the time of the fall where it would lead. How could she?

The doctor seems perplexed that all she wants to talk about is a fall that happened months ago. She seems equally perplexed that all the doctor wants to talk about is the brain scans.

Daniel Mendelsohn realizes during the exchange that his mother wants to give the doctor context – she wants him to know the story of how this patient of his came to be his patient. That story matters to her. It matters as much, or perhaps more, than the medical role the doctor is trying to play. That story is what allows her to make sense of what’s happening; to make sense of the looming loss; to make sense of herself in the context of it all.

In “Time Regained,” French novelist Marcel Proust writes:

In reality every reader is, when he reads, the reader of his own self. The work of the writer is just a kind of optical instrument that is offered to the reader to permit him to discern that which, without the book in question, he could not have seen within himself.

In the stories we write for ourselves, the context we construct does the very same thing. It is our own optical instrument. It helps us understand the world. It helps us understand ourselves. And in some cases, context helps us celebrate our spouse on his 50th birthday.

Kat Dayton is a columnist for St. George News, any opinions given are her own and not representative of St. George News.

Email: [email protected] | [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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