I’m pretty sure that my awareness of passion began in the fourth grade, in the early 1970’s, when my family moved to Butte, Montana in mid-winter. The air in Butte was so cold and dry that my nostrils pinched themselves shut if I tried to breathe without using a scarf as a warming filter. Besides the cold, there aren’t too many specifics that I remember about Butte. We lived there for only a few months, staying with relatives, before we moved again, but to this day I can’t think of Butte without also recalling a general sense about how tough the place was. I know that my memories are romanticized by my ten-year-old mind, but it seemed to me that people in the town just gritted their teeth and went about their daily business despite the cold, the snow, and the steep streets. It did not seem at all odd to my ten-year-old self that Evel Knievel, motorcycle daredevil and rule-breaking badass, chose to live in Butte. My entire family–working-class truckers, heavy equipment operators, miners, and general laborers who rode motorcycles and raced cars for fun–were sort of Knievel fanatics. We held our collective breath as he did his thing, jumping and sometimes crashing his motorcycle in spectacular events that were staged on live television.
Later, much later, I realized that some people used words such as “idiot” and “foolish” to describe Knievel and his exploits, but to me as a ten-year-old boy he was brave and tough and heroic. He had a drive and a tenacity, a passion, to do something better than anyone else in the world, and he actually did it. I didn’t know much about how or why a person would jump over rows of busses on a motorcycle, but I did understand that Knievel had some kind of passion that made it happen.
I can see now that my early understanding of passion was almost entirely limited to physical feats. My heroes, well into my college years, were athletes whose biographies I devoured and whose passions for their sports I tried to imitate. My list of people to emulate was probably fairly typical for a boy growing up in tiny rural towns who played sports and saw famous athletes only on television or in magazines, but as I mentally rehearse that list now, I notice something odd. One name, Muhammad Ali, jumps out at me, not because it would have been strange for me to have admired his passion and to have imagined at times what it would be like to be him in the ring, but because I would admire him today for a completely different reason than I did when I was ten.
As it happens, my first memories of Muhammad Ali are also from Butte. I remember trying to make it to a relative’s house on time to watch Muhammad Ali box on television. Ali, I learned, had been a champion before he was suspended for refusing his draft into the Vietnam War. I also learned that Muhammad Ali had once been named Cassius Clay and that the name change was somehow significant. I wish I could remember whether I knew then that Ali changed his name because of his conversion to Islam, or that his refusal to fight in the war was based on his religious beliefs, or if my family approved of his actions, but I doubt that such discussions took place for long, if at all. My family and I admired Ali’s physical passion, and the pure strength and courage displayed in the ring aligned with how we saw our working class lives. His physical brilliance, his passion, was enough to make us watch him.
I sometimes wish that my fifty-year-old self could go back in time to tell my ten- or fifteen- or twenty-five-year-old self that there are other kinds of passion, that sometimes the most effective passion is neither exciting nor loud. Though I once completely ignored the passion that drove Ali to sacrifice years in the prime of his athletic life, I now find it at least as interesting as the passion that drove his physical skills. I still love the passion that is revealed in biographies–almost anyone worthy of a biography, in almost any field, seems to have been driven by an interesting passion. But lately I find myself being more impressed by calm than by fury, by patience rather than speed. Champion athletes are often famous for their absolute unwillingness to lose. But that kind of inefficient passion is becoming much less interesting to me, and not just because I am way past the point in my life where I can ever hope to win at everything I attempt.
Lately, I have been chastened more than once to find myself with flushed cheeks and a raised voice in conversations about controversial topics that are important to me. And, almost without fail, I have noticed at least one person in the group, just as passionate as I am, who manages to remain calm about whatever topic we are discussing. Their quiet passion is what I admire now. I want to be one of those people.
David claims he grew up bouncing around the country for no good reason in (mostly rural) areas of Texas, Iowa, New Mexico, Montana, and Washington. He is married to Anna. They live in Montevallo, Alabama, with their soon-to-be-teenager son, John David, two dogs, one cat, and a continually changing collection of fish. David is a full-time house-husband, caretaker of Anna, and father who is still trying to decide what he wants to be when he grows up. David takes interest in all kinds of things that delight or surprise, including musing about religion, being entertained by pets, raising kids, making and listening to music, watching movies and plays, making and keeping friends, and reading anything that has ever been printed.