In a continuing tribute to the people I love, I want to give a shout out to my little brother John.
When John was first brought home from the hospital, my cousin Chris looked down at his tiny, wiggly body and said, “Is that his heart?” He was pointing to a minute red birthmark on John’s chest, smaller than the size of a newborn’s pinky nail. And indeed, the birthmark was the shape of a tiny, lopsided heart. “No,” my mother explained to Chris. “That’s not his heart. His heart is on the inside. That’s just a birthmark.” But I thought Chris was ingenious. From then on, whenever John would prance around in diapers and cowboy boots, slyly swallowing whole sticks of butter, and pouring non-parent-approved handfuls of refined sugar down his throat, I used to look at that spot on his chest and pretend it was his real, live heart.
When we were children, John was always part of the melee. Brigitte and I used to play Barbies, and baby dolls, and fairies, but John was just around the corner, making war sounds with his plastic helicopters, or bending his Ninja Turtles into fighting stances. Sometimes our worlds of make-believe would overlap, like the times we would each embody our own entire, badass gang. Brigitte’s imaginary gang was called “The Management.” John’s gang was “The Gateekans.” My gang (which somehow, inadvertently, became the loser gang) was called “The Wu Tang Gang.” We would post sly notices around the house, proclaiming our gang’s superiority, or, if Brigitte and John were ganging up on me, the notices would be Management/Gateekan collaborations that belittled and jeered at the hapless Wu Tang Gang. Other times, Brigitte and I would pretend we were servants at an ancient royal court, and that John was our master, the Prince. That particular game involved carrying John around on a well-worn red blanket, never letting his feet touch the ground. Brigitte and I would each hold one side of the blanket, and John would sit in its sagging center as we paraded him around the “castle.” I’m not sure why this was so amusing to Brigitte and I as laborers, but for John, our precious Prince, it was just annoying. He would tolerate the Prince Game for only so long, then hop off the blanket to our disappointment, singeing his royal feet on the unholy carpet.
By the time John was a teenager, he had already seen a good portion of Western Europe. When he was about fourteen, he, Brigitte, our friends Katherine and Shannon, and myself all went backpacking in Europe, sans parents. Poor John was surrounded by annoying girls for four whole weeks, and he made no attempt at disguising his disgust with our antics and our humor. He thought we were ridiculous. However, as he had no other option, he tolerated us. Some time in the fourth week, we found ourselves in the south of Italy, far from our starting point in London. John’s flight to Seattle was leaving in three days, and he had to get back. Katherine and Shannon had already departed, and Brigitte and I had another two weeks before going home. So without telling my mother about our slightly irresponsible plan, we put John on a train, exchanged mildly guilty looks with each other, and waved until his train was out of sight. His route took him from the south of Italy, into Switzerland, through Toulon, Lyon, Bourges and Paris, and up to the northern coast of France. From there, he would cross the English Channel, arrive in London, negotiate his way to the airport and onto the first of several connecting flights, and if all went well, he would arrive in Seattle in one piece. He was fourteen years old and didn’t speak a lick of French, German, or Italian. We crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. John made it home with flying colors, and my confidence in him increased a hundredfold. I doubt I’d have been able to navigate my way from southern Italy back to Seattle all alone when I was fourteen years old. But John’s always been a survivor.
Years later, when we were all traveling together in Thailand, we ended up on one of our favorite beaches in the world. Brigitte and I would spend most of our time lounging by the sea and going to bed early, but John tended to be a bit more wild. He would frequently take a long-tail boat from our quiet, whimsical beach to the next beach over- Had Rin- which is loud, dirty, and notorious for its Full Moon Parties. At least four nights a week, John was to be found partying in Had Rin, breaking Thai girls’ hearts, and engaging in all sorts of shady and scandalous behavior, as eighteen year olds tend to do. One memorable incident involves a Thai girl who was infamous for wearing mini-mini-mini skirts, and tube tops that could have been described as being indecently low cut, were it not for the fact that her nipples had generally already popped out of them. So rather than being coyly suggestive, they tended to be more of just an afterthought, or a high-waisted belt. She and John spent a sordid week together, amidst a blur of stolen Tupac CD’s, a bag of illicit pills that mysteriously went missing, and a strange, inexplicable rash ;) Thankfully she disappeared to Bangkok shortly thereafter, but there were plenty of drunken, gyrating Thai girls to take her place.
John is certainly in possesion of a street-wise, survivor mentality, he also has a deeply compassionate side, and I often see this kindness manifested in the way he relates to animals. When John encounters a dog, or even our snotty cat Boo, his entire demeanor changes, and a softness that wasn't there previously comes into his face and voice. He becomes completely unmasked, and his softness and kindness are almost palpable. He will baby-talk to dogs shamelessly, scratching them behind their ears until their necks are craned and their heads are nearly touching the floor. He says he knows a technique of how to scratch a dog behind the ears in just the right spot so that no dog can ever resist him. And so far, he’s right. Every dog I have ever seen John encounter is shortly in a puddle on the floor, its tongue out, its eyes rolling back. John can commune with dogs in a way that allows his humanity to shine through beautifully. Anyone that treats animals right is a decent person in my book, and John is wonderful with animals.
John is also an amazing artist. He has been drawing since he was a tiny kid, but there is one piece in particular that serves to demonstrate his amazing abilities across the board. On a huge sheet of paper that now lives in my parent’s basement, there is a colorful, jostling, comical, hectic, detailed, incredibly creative world. It is all sketched in John’s hand, and it reminds me of a Where’s Waldo scene, it is so busy and alive. John specializes in characters. On this piece of artwork, there are villains, heroes, drug-dealers, mobsters, plotters, robbers, and luckless victims. There are intricate bomb factories, racing cars, floating islands, and surprise sunsets. There are bubbling machines and twisting tubes, detailed scams, and illegal hold-ups. There is so much going on in this picture, so many scenes, and lives, and stories, it is unbelievable. You can get lost in it for hours. The comical characters are sketched to perfection, and each square inch has its story to tell. John is a comic-book genius who has never taken the time to produce a comic-book. But he has pages and pages of notebooks filled with scenes like this, along with intricately produced bubble letters and caligraphic words, and perfect replications of houses, gardens, and people. John is a very gifted artist.
My brother is also a sponge for information. For many years now, one of his passions has been world history. Last November, I was studying for my final exams at the University of Washington. One of the classes I was taking was on Buddhism in Southeast Asia, and it presupposed that you had a fairly extensive knowledge of that part of the world during the twentieth century. This was an advanced class, comprised almost entirely of graduate students, and I was one of the few undergraduates who had been accepted to study with this professor. In order to prepare myself to write the final paper, I called John. It seems to me that he knows everything there is to know about world history, and in particular, the history of Southeast Asia. At times, I’ve asked my father, a Vietnam War veteran, a question about Vietnam in the Sixties. He’ll usually scratch his head and say, “You know, you should ask John. He’ll be able to answer that question better than I could.”
So before writing my final paper, I made John a deal: I’d take him out for a steak dinner at El Gaucho if he would tell me everything he knew about the history of Southeast Asia during the twentieth century. He did. He told me about the Khmer Rouge moving from the hills of Cambodia into Phnom Penh and taking the city, and then the entire country. He told me about the drug-lords living in the jungles of Laos, making and breaking deals with the United States government. He told me about Thailand’s ability to remain independent, even though colonization was occurring on every side of the country. He told me about the Golden Triangle, and the secret involvement of the US in Burma during the Vietnam War. Paying for expensive Gaucho steaks was absolutely worth it! Even after that night, I called John frequently, asking questions and clarifying points I wasn’t clear on. I wrote my final paper and turned it in, and I am largely indebted to John for receiving an A!
I have often said that you can tell a man who has grown up with older sisters, because they tend act differently than other men. Such men are generally more comfortable around women, they speak easily, and they show a natural respect for the opposite sex. The same is true of John. Brigitte and I may have annoyed him when he was growing up, but he has blossomed into a young man who is entirely at ease with women, due in part to his constant exposure to us and our tittering, gossiping, scandal-causing, crying, laughing, getting-into-trouble friends. A number of these women have become very close with John over the years, calling him to hang out when Brigitte and I are out of town, and sometimes inviting him out with them even when we are! He interacts with these women in an easy, comfortable way, very confident, but lacking any pretension.
Years ago, on the same Thai beach where we have dreamed and laughed and swam and played so many months of our lives away, I watched John’s receptivity and ease with women piss off some lesser, more insecure guys (who were also considerably older!) We had befriended an Israeli girl who was notorious (and quite popular) for sunbathing on the beach in nothing but a tiny thong and a straw cowboy hat. Watch out. She had all the guys drooling. After dumping her dreadlocked South African boyfriend after a few days of near-naked beachside frolicking, she confessed to John that the guy was terrible in bed. Then she asked John to accompany her to a party that evening, where they sat, drank beers, and talked all night. Women always feel that they can be very candid with John, because he’s such a chill guy to talk to. He never tries to hit on women, he just has a natural knack of befriending them. I’ll take some of the credit for that ;)
John is also an amazing listener. Despite the five and a half year age difference between us, I can talk more freely with him than I can with most men my age. When you are speaking to John, he seems to listen with his whole body, leaning in, absorbing everything you say. His head is cocked at a certain angle, and his eyes seem to be following the story. He’s like a finely adapted listening machine. Nothing gets by him. He’ll return to a reference I made twenty minutes before, and question me about it so that he can understand the situation more fully. He is beautifully non-judgmental. He tends to see all sides of a problem, and offers insights that can be difficult to notice when you are the one in the midst of the drama. John has been privy to the details of all of the messy, dramatic (and belatedly humorous) hookups and breakups I went through in my twenties. He has offered sage advice, and allowed me to see the other person’s side more clearly, all the while deeply sympathizing with me. When I part ways with John after such a conversation, I feel great. I feel heard and understood, and have so many new ideas to think about, so many new directions to approach a problem from. When I have a heart-to-heart with John, I feel like we’ve gotten somewhere. We don’t stay on the surface- we go deep, to the source of the problem. No holds barred. Everything is out on the table. And it is so nice to be able to be that honest with someone, with no fear of being reproached or judged. It’s especially cool when that someone is your little brother.
John has always been one of my best friends, those strange people who you can lose contact with for months or years, and then pick up right where you left off. This past Christmas, we spent three days together, cruising around town and going on various missions. We were driving my dad’s car, which John had co-opted, and it showed signs of John’s telltale automobile negligence: The windshield wipers were broken, which made driving in a snowstorm rather challenging (John stuck his head out the window like Ace Ventura), and the side mirror on my side had been knocked loose when John inadvertantly smashed it into a very firm, very unforgiving wooden post that supported our carport. So my window had to remain down with the mirror tucked inside to avoid it banging persistently against the side of the car. This meant that on our various pilgrimages around town, we generally had both windows down, and plenty of snow blowing around our heads and melting in our laps. But we had a great time together, stopping at Starbucks for sandwiches and lattes, cat-sitting for some old folks who loved John, and taking in the scenic sights near and around Aurora’s esteemed methadone clinic ;)
We stopped at a used bookshop one day, and after I had been sitting and reading for awhile, John approached me. “What are you looking at, Sarah?” he asked. I held up the book and explained that it was the legend of Isis. “Is it good?” he asked, his eyebrows furrowed. “Yeah, it looks really good,” I said, standing up to put it away. “Well then give it to me, and I’ll buy it for you,” he said, whisking it out of my hand and turning on his heel. I was amazed and touched. In that small gesture, my little brother had shown me that he had grown up. I enjoyed reading that book over the rest of the Christmas holiday, as snow fell outside and my family curled up and enjoyed being together.
There is talk that John might join our growing posse of friends who will be in Thailand this winter, and I have been sending so much positive energy that way. I would love to spend some quality time with my brother again, on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, a place where we already have so much history, and so many funny, happy memories. Regardless of where I see John next, I know I will be impressed at how much he has grown and matured. Every time I see him after a long time has passed, I truly feel my heart open, and a deep connection become instantly re-established. John is one of my favorite people in the world.