Grinning and bearing it

I’ll tell you the funniest story from my undergraduate years at a University to Remain Anonymous. One morning I was abed and the phone rang and after a long while I answered it, snarling, and it was a friend of mine in another dormitory.

‘You hafta help me,’ he said, tensely.
‘It’s only noon. Go away.’
‘I really need your help.’
‘No. Go away.’
‘Please.’


‘What’s the matter?’
‘I’m sewing my bear suit,’ he said, ‘which is really laborious, this is my bear suit for the Costume Ball tonight, and it’s a hell of a good suit, but I really should have been working on it for a few days before today, which I didn’t, which was a mistake, because the design is remarkable, this is absolutely the greatest bear suit you ever saw, this suit would make you proud if you were a bear, I mean I really worked on this, I studied bear musculature and all, how their fur rolls over their shoulders, you know, which is really fascinating, and how the claws emerge from sockets in the paws and feet, and believe you me that was a real engineering coup to design retractable claws, but the problem right now this minute this morning is that it’s a hell of a lot of work, and another problem, an additional problem, is that I was worried about my concentration lapsing, so I took some … medicine, and now I’m all rattled and I need your help.’

‘No. Call someone else.’
‘I did call three other guys but they won’t answer their phones.’
‘OK.’
‘Don’t even get dressed,’ said my friend, tersely. ‘Just put shorts on and run.’

My friend was a really bright guy, and as generous as the day is long, and deviously funny, and I should say that today, many years after the event I am reporting here for the first time in public, he is a successful businessman, worth many dollars, a pillar of the community, a chieftain of the clan, but at that time, the day of the Costume Ball long ago, he was not at all a pillar of the community, by no stretch of the imagination could that be said, and when I arrived at his room in the other hall he was one very addled bear. He was wearing the bear head, which was a remarkable head, incredibly accurate and detailed, pretty much the greatest bear head I ever saw, but otherwise he was wearing boxer shorts and a shirt from a nearby women’s college, a shirt which he said he had obtained in a panty raid, for when we were undergraduates a thousand years ago there really were such puzzling and inexplicable things, although mostly they consisted of a lot of aimless running and shouting in the dark, and many confused young men unsure as to where exactly and why exactly we were running, and what exactly we were to do when we arrived at our destination, but you didn’t want to drop out of the pack for fear of being razzed, which is, I have come to think, most of the source of trouble with men, young or old.

Anyway, my friend was so addled he could hardly see, which he said was actually very accurate bearwise as bears can hardly see, but I pointed out that bears in general make up for their virtual blindness with incredible senses of smell, which he didn’t have, and he conceded the point.

‘The actual technical problem of the moment,’ he said, ‘is that I can’t see the needle or the thread, so if you could possibly stitch the arms onto the chest we will be making some progress.’
‘Do you want some coffee?’ I asked.

‘Oh no no,’ he said. ‘Coffee is bad for you. Too much stimulation.’

I stitched the arms onto the chest and then stitched the legs onto what looked like a sort of large, very hairy diaper, this being the bottom half of the suit, and all the while my friend provided incomprehensible running commentary at high speed. And then I attached the claws to the hairy slippers of the feet and the hairy gloves of the paws—and I really must note here the terrific engineering of the claws, my friend had devoted serious thought and creative juice to those claws, you could pull them in and push them out by means of a wire attached to the middle finger of each hand—and then I helped my friend into the bear suit, which took quite a long time also because it was a complicated thing with many buttons. In fact, I think he went seriously overboard on the attachment devices, although he made the point that the very last thing you wanted to have happen when dressed as a bear was to suddenly lose a paw or something, which was a good point.

By the time he was fully dressed and had stopped playing incessantly with the claws and was unaddled enough to walk properly, it was dusk and I told him I had to get to the dining hall for my dinner shift.
‘Do you want dinner?’ I said.

‘Oh no no,’ he said. ‘It’d take us forever to get the head off. Let’s go right to the ball. Can you walk me there? My eyesight isn’t what it used to be.’

Thus I found myself at age 20 walking across campus arm in arm with a bear, something that had never happened before and has never happened since, although many amazing things have happened to me, and I have seen many miracles, first and foremost my children emerging mewling from the sea of my wife.
When we got to the door of the building housing the Costume Ball my friend hesitated.

‘Maybe this isn’t a good idea,’ he said. ‘Maybe I’ve made a mistake. Maybe bears are not welcome at the Costume Ball. It’s way too loud in there. It’s violently loud. I feel like my head is going to explode. I don’t feel at all well. Do you think you could walk me home and stay with me awhile until I come around?’

But by then I was tired of bears, and tired of my friend, and tired of the very words Costume Ball, and I am ashamed to say here that I wrenched open the door, and winced at the howling caterwauling disco roar from within, and grabbed my friend by his hairy shoulder, and crammed him into the Costume Ball, and slammed the door, choking off that awful throbbing music, and ran away, and all these years later I still wonder if that was a sin.

I have done shabbier things in the 30 years since that moment, many small thoughtless things, selfish things, greedy things, and it is the great work of my middle years to be more attentive and open, and less judgmental and critical, and to talk less and listen more, but oddly that moment by the door still bothers me a little, all these years later. I was tired and impatient and I fled, leaving my friend alone, and leaving him assaulted by disco, too, which is unforgivable.

You will say, as I have said to myself many times, hey, it’s totally understandable, six hours with an addled bear is plenty, anyone would have had enough, don’t sweat it, plus obviously your buddy clearly survived the Costume Ball to eventually become a pillar of the community, plus a thousand years have passed and time wounds all heels, but still I think about that moment, always with a smile, but also still always with a wince.
So many times have I run away.

There was a Macedonian woman once named Gonxha who said to be faithful in little things is a great thing, and I think of that remark from tiny old Mother Teresa whenever I grow weary. I grow weary often, as we all do, as we all must, that being the nature of the world; but then I remember that there are uncountable small things that need to be done well, and I set myself again to sit and sew, there being so many bear suits, so many friends, so many wounds to heal. 

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author of six books, most recently The Wet Engine, about ‘the magic & muddle & mangle & music & miracle of hearts’.

 

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