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I’m having my morning coffee at the place at the bottom of the hill in Pittsburgh. It’s quiet this morning…and rainy. On my way out of the door I picked up the James Smith umbrella bequeathed to us by our dear friend Brian Johnston-Ibsen scholar, self-invented man. Brian grew up in rough circumstances in London. There was no father on the premises and mom had her own troubles so Brian and older brother Tony were pretty much left to their own devices. It was during the war, and when the nightly air raids began and the rest of the family sought shelter in the local tube station, Brian and Tony went up on the roof to “watch the fireworks.” “It was beautiful,” he once told me, “quite exhilarating.” This was Brian at ten. At twelve he was apprenticed to a Salvation Army musician and learned to play the cornet in order to accompany the base drummer and the bell ringer imploring passersby to put something in the kettle. At fourteen he abandoned his musical career, ran away and, lying about his age, managed to enlist in the RAF. There the unschooled recruit was taught to read and, the war having ended, flew a desk as a lowly clerk. From there he won a full scholarship to Cambridge, came down with a First and from there began an academic career that took him from Northwestern to Berkeley and finally to Beirut where he escaped being taken as a hostage only because his prospective abductor happened to be his student at the American University. “Professor Johnston, I think it would be a good idea for you to leave after our class today. I am supposed to pick you up tonight. Don’t worry about your flat. I will see that everything is packed up and forwarded to you.” A year later having relocated to Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon, a number of large packing crates arrived containing his books, manuscripts and his beloved collection of Middle Eastern art.

One night over dinner with Barbara the three of us fell into a discussion of big stuff-making plans and musing on our lives’ directions. “I’ve never done that,” he confessed almost as if he were laying down a gauntlet, “and look what I’ve become….Did I ever tell you about the time I gambled away every penny of my savings on the boat over from London and I had to appeal to the British consulate in New York for train fare to Chicago?”

Barbara and I have been thinking a lot about making plans lately, plans which include being more present, staying in the moment and not getting too far ahead of ourselves. I think this is what Brian meant under his apparent flippancy.

English actors talk about the importance of “thinking on the line.” As an American actor trained in the teachings of Bobby Lewis, I had a hard time understanding what they meant by this. “You think before the line, not on it. “Realize what is happening, make a decision and then speak. When the penny finally dropped, I realized what they meant was keep thinking and adjusting all the way through the line one word at a time “to be or not to be that is the question.” Try it. What is the new realization or thought adjustment that comes with each word? Why is each word in the place in the line where Shakespeare put it? You can eventually say the phrase quite quickly if the moment demands it, but you have to begin very slowly mulling each word in its needed time. Or, as I would often think gazing out at the 59th St Bridge from Barbara’s room on the twelfth floor at Sloan Kettering. “Slow down, you move too fast, gotta make the morning last.”

And that’s what’s on my mind today. October 22.


Jim Niesen


Author Irondale

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