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A storyteller passes away.

A great man named Merlin Dewing passed away this morning at the age of seventy-four. I was shocked and stunned, as Merlin was as young as they get, full of life and an interest in bettering the lives of others. There is a mix of grief and gratitude in me this week. Grief for his death and gratitude for a chance to get to know him in this last year of his life.

I met Merlin at Excelsior United Methodist Church where I’ve worked the past five years. My being assigned to youth and young adults, our paths didn’t cross all that much and so I didn’t have the opportunity to get to know Merlin until I started the church’s Men’s Book Club in February, 2009. When I started the group, I didn’t know who would show up or who would show up consistently or who would enjoy it. It was my first program aimed exclusively at adult men and I was nervous at whether or not it would succeed. Since its inception in February, attendance has been low, not everyone who comes one month continues to the next month, and there’s still a struggle to discover what’s needed to make this club grow.

Merlin was the only man who showed up from day one and who had never missed a meeting. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me.

When he showed up the first night, I honestly had to play the, “I Know Your Name, I’m Just Not Going to Say It” Game. It’s the game I sometimes play with adults who I recognize at church but don’t know very well. My constituency, the youth group, is downstairs while the adults are upstairs and to make connections outside of youth and their parents, I have to make a concerted effort. So here came a man who I recognized by face but not name and as our first book discussion unfolded I not only learned his name but it soon became clear I’d been depriving myself of an excellent connection for years.

Merlin contributed so much to the Men’s Book Club. In order to be a close reader, I’m (unfortunately) a slow reader and I admired Merlin’s ability to read so quickly and yet simultaneously savor the story. At our meetings, he always had something of substance to say about the books we read. He recognized writers’ stylistic choices, how stories connected to other pieces of literature, and embraced new stories without hesitation (I’ll never forget how excited he was to finally read his first Stephen King novel, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and the way he was impressed by King’s writing and how it went against every stereotype he’d heard of the man’s macabre storytelling). Most importantly, Merlin knew how to connect the story on the written page to the stories of our lives.

While our reason to gather was to talk about books, I must admit a major contributor to my personal enjoyment of attempting to pull a handful of men together every third Tuesday of the month was my getting to hear a slew of fascinating personal stories from Merlin. The man had a million of them, never a dull one and always pertinent to the discussion at-hand. There were stories about business and tales of the military, stories of overcoming hardship and lore of local history, great jokes with great timing and touching love stories. When I was told Merlin passed away, I was upset with myself in the same way as was I was told my Grandma Phyllis died (the day before our first Men’s Book Club meeting back in February, to tie things together a little more tightly).

For years I’d meant to get Grandma’s stories down on paper or tape and barely scratched the surface on this goal. It was a missed opportunity I’ll never get back and not having her stories and the story of her life recorded as completely as possible – straight from her lips – is the pain I try to avoid most when I think of her these days. This feeling rose in me as I learned of Merlin’s passing because I remember clearly, every month, sitting there with a kid’s grin on my face as Merlin recounted story after story and thinking to myself, “I have to get with this man and write everything he says down.”  I didn’t do that and it’s a regret I’ll carry with me.

Merlin chose last month’s book club selection, The Sweet Season: A Sportswriter Rediscovers Football, Family, and a Bit of Faith at Minnesota’s St. John’s University by Austin Murphy. He’ read it before and had high hopes this locally-focused pigskin tale smackdab in the middle of the football season would bring in more members and though we didn’t have a large group show up, Merlin lead the discussion with ease and enthusiasm. He chose Murphy’s book because he admired Gagliarti’s leadership style and we had a long talk about what it means to stand out from the crowd as a leader. Through an online search to read his obituary, I came across a business website Merlin was involved in and saw this quote from him splashed across the top of the page:

“Leaders should be measured not by how much they lead, but by how little they have to lead. Their success comes from knowing how to select and develop gifted people.”
~ Merlin Dewing

This attitude was reflected in how Merlin saw Gagliarti as coach in the book and in how Merlin contributed not only to what I personally witnessed in Men’s Book Club but also in what I saw in how he interacted with his church family, entreprenuership opportunities, and his marriage. Reading his obituary it was clear he was well-loved and well-respected with many accomplishments under his belt that I never heard about. Maybe that’s because I was downstairs with the youth group. But more likely, it’s because Merlin was humble and sought to build up others before he built up himself. I anticipate learning even more about him at his funeral this Saturday and while I’m grieving, this impending time of celebrating Merlin’s life leaves me with gratitude to have known him at all.

(Postscript – At Merlin’s funeral, there were indeed tales of his being humble and for as many wonderful stories as he told me about other people in his life, it was an absolute joy to hear so many wonderful stories about him. The man has done so much, including playing an integral part in keeping the Twins in Minnesota in the early 1980s, not that one would have heard about it from him.)

On December 15 the Men’s Book Club discusses The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. Knowing how quickly Merlin could get through a book, our group will be left wondering if he finished, what he thought of Sebold’s style, and especially how he viewed the portrayal of the afterlife. I would have loved to hear what new stories he’d be able to relate to the novel, and I wonder if I would have finally made time to work with him on writing them all down.

Merlin Dewing was a man of character and he enriched the story of my life.

-nm

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My Summer Reading List

I have an ambitious reading list for this summer. Just like my dedication of two hours to write a day (or ten hours per week), I’m challenging myself to read for ninety minutes a day on Monday thru Wednesday plus Friday, or six hour a week. I tend to read 40 pages in an hour, 50 when I’m really feeling it, so if we take my optimistic number and combine it with six hours that’s 300 pages per week. Starting this week through the end of August, that’s fifteen weeks or 4500 pages. …That seems like a lot. I may have to re-think this. In the meantime, let’s get a little ambitious this morning!

All of these are selections I’ve never read before, so I have a completely fresh slate of stories awaiting me. Here they are in no particular order:

Road Dogs by Elmore Leonard (fiction novel, 272 pages)

The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry (fiction novel, 288 pages) * Excelsior UMC Men’s Book Club selection

On the Road by Jack Kerouac (nonfiction novel, 307 pages) * Excelsior UMC Men’s Book Club selection

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (nonfiction novel, 274 pages) * Excelsior UMC Men’s Book Club selection

The View From the Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockemeier (short story collection, 288 pages)

Tin House #39 (short stories and poetry, 200 pages)

I’m Sorry You Feel That Way by Diana Joseph (nonfiction short story collection, 208 pages)

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (nonfiction, 320 pages)

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein (fiction, 528 pages… I can’t find the abridged version, which the Ron Book Team has decided is just fine for our summer reading) * Ron Book Team selection

How to Think Theologically by Howard W. Stone & James O. Duke (textbook, 126 pages)

Best American Short Stories 2008 (short story collection, 384 pages)

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier (fiction novel, 272 pages)

I also have the following to “read” on audio, all of which are re-reads for me:

On Writing by Stephen King (nonfiction novel)

Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman (short story collection)

Up in Honey’s Room by Elmore Leonard (fiction novel)

The Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman (kinda-sorta-not-really nonfiction novel)

From a Buick 8 by Stephen King (fiction novel)

That’s only 2235 pages – a far cry from the 4500 pages I calculated above. I think I’m going to be reading a lot slower than at my 50-pages per hour clip. I’ll be reading short stories and each one of those deserves to be digested slowly like little meals unto themselves. Some of the novels are for Men’s Book Club and I want to slow down and annotate them so I can better lead discussion sessions. And others I hope are so good I’ll need to slow down and savor them (Road Dogs). I’ll keep you posted as I finish different stories.

Right now, Kelly and I are almost finished with the audio version of From a Buick 8 and I’m about forty pages into The Last Picture Show and really enjoying it. I hope to finish it before I go to camp and start on a new book by then, too (that’s June 13, for readers who aren’t in the know).

What are you reading this summer?

-nm

Men's Book Club Summer Reading List

This post is mostly for my readers who are men in the Twin Cities, but if you’re having fun with a book club where you live, dear reader, I’d love to hear about it in the comments section.

For the last three months, I’ve been leading a new men’s book club at my local church and what follows is my Craigslist ad. Email me if you want to join.

* * *

Our new men’s book club is growing and we’re inviting you to join us. Our members are currently men between the ages of 29 and 75 who enjoy getting together for coffee, snacks, and good discussion of great books. We’ve set up our summer reading list and schedule and hope you’ll contact us.

Join us on the third Monday evening of the month at 7:00pm at Excelsior United Methodist Church (881 3rd Ave. Excelsior, MN 55331). Any man ages 18 and up is welcome to join us whether they’re reading their first or their fiftieth novel, and regardless of whether they’re members of the church or not.

Our Summer Reading List:

The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry
Discussion on Monday, June 22 @ 7:00pm

On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Discussion on Monday, July 20 @ 7:00pm

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
Discussion on Monday, August 17 @ 7:00pm

Our Past Selections:
May, 2009 – Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
April, 2009 – The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
March, 2009 – The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Please email me to let me know if you plan to attend or if you need a copy of the books ($10 apiece).

-nm