My Old Man’s Wisdom

A note first to any young person reading this. The expression “my old man” may sound archaic or crude or quaint in a “swell” kind of way. But I’ve always been fond of “my old man.” To me, it’s nothing less than an endearment. I’m too young to have ever used the expression, but when I was a kid, the older guys in the neighborhood would do so freely and matter-of-factly, nothing affectionate in their tone, only in my longing to use the words myself, though I never have. Or hell, maybe I just miss those days, which should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me or has read my work. Which reminds me of an essay by David Eagleman that I read in this week’s New Yorker. He studies, among many other subjects, one’s perception of time, how time seems like stop-action during life-threatening crises, a topic familiar to readers of fiction, especially those who have read “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” To provide context, he argues that the larger the animal, the more the animal lives in the past. As an example, he explains that a message from an elephant’s foot takes a while to reach the animal’s brain. The elephant responds to a pricking, for example, well after the “event,” relatively speaking, when compared, say, to a boy. And if you’re following this logic, short people live more often in the present than tall people do. He says he received plenty of raves from short people regarding this assertion. As a not-tall person, I’m intrigued by the theory, though it clearly doesn’t apply to me since I am obsessed with the past. In fact, I’m always a few steps removed from the present, unless I’m eating a Magnum Double Chocolate Bar, which I’ve just discovered and that are better than Dove Bars.

When the hell are you going to get to the wisdom? Your old man’s wisdom?

My dad is nearly 91 years old. Until he was about 70, he never had a headache—or a cough, or sore throat or upset stomach. Nothing. When he got his first cough, this was momentous. Anyway, because of congestive heart problems of late, he is in and out of hospitals, the frequency becoming sadly troublesome lately. During his recent long stay last week, I got to spend a few hours with him without my mom hovering. When I arrived, quite early so I could intercept the doctor and try to get him out of there, I sauntered into his room and found him fast asleep. I waited outside his room so as not to disturb him. While I read a newspaper, I noticed a woman approaching his room with some contraption and rose to stop her from the critical task she was about to undertake, which turned out to be less than critical. She needed to weigh my old man. Now. This couldn’t wait apparently. I’m usually fairly timid but I looked her in the eye and told her the weight business would have to wait because the poor guy hadn’t been sleeping well and there was no way we were going to wake him for this. She turned away, said she’d come back later, which she never did because she was at the end of her shift. I felt like Michael Corleone needing to protect his ailing father, which was reinforced when I stopped another woman from bursting in to take out the garbage, a task that apparently must get done before 8:00 am. She left too, and my chest puffed out.

Later, after my old man had awoken, and during a spell when he was feeling more like his old self, he offered these pearls: “No think too much.” I took this in. What else, I asked. “No eat too much. No work too much.” Hospital? He pfft-ed. “Hospital no good.” Sleep? I asked. His eyes widened. He appreciated my encouragement. “No sleep too much,” he pronounced. He gazed out the window, satisfied, his 100-pound frame barely filling the bed. Then he turned to me and pointed. “Everything too much no good.” As he spoke, I was trying to live in the present. I really was. But I tore off a piece of “Your Daily Menu” from the hospital cart because I was afraid I’d forget, and wrote down his advice. I was hoping he wouldn’t notice, but he was content, pleased that I was writing down his words. For posterity, he probably thought. And he was right. Everything too much no good. A perfect book title. I yearned for more, but I could tell he would tire soon. I looked up from my paper. “That’s all,” he added, his hands smoothing the sheet at his chest, dismissing any more pronouncements. He nodded and offered a crooked smile. “I tell a good a ting,” he said. And he did. 

About a week ago, I finished Vonnegut’s newly released short stories, While Mortals Sleep. There’s a reason why the stories were never published in his lifetime. But they do include flashes of brilliance and signs of what was to come: an intrigue with technology; sweetness and innocence preserved and destroyed; quirky characters you want to meet; redemption; a clash of old and new. About six characters are all named Nancy for some reason. I’m glad I read the stories, and I’m glad Vonnegut wrote them, because they probably made possible Welcome to the Monkey House, a much more refined and nuanced collection of short stories.

I started reading David Foster Wallace’s new unfinished novel, The Pale King. I would have guessed the focus would be more scattered, since he never wrestled together the stacks he left behind, but the pages I’ve read so far are cohesive and filled with a manic energy that matches the genius of the writing. If you’re not ready to tackle the novel, at least read chapter 5. It’s hilarious and sad and a thing unto itself. The New Yorker had an article this week about Wallace, written by his friend Jonathan Franzen. He maintains that Wallace chose his fans over his family with his death, which is a fascinating premise, one that I wish Wallace had a chance to refute. I also came across the now famous commencement speech Wallace delivered at Rutgers (I think it was Rutgers). In that speech, he achieves what all good writing does: he makes you realize truths you already knew but couldn’t quite articulate, one of the very things he touches on in the speech.

I’m also reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, the story of Lacks’s unwitting contribution to medical science. The book reads like a good novel, with good guys and bad guys, but with all their flaws and charms intact. 
I spoke today at Highland Park High School’s Focus on the Arts, an event that includes over 200 artists in a span of three days, an achievement I can’t yet fully grasp. Everyone takes part: hundreds of community volunteers; teachers and students; librarians and staff. In these days of testing and rancor over critical standards, how refreshing to see a school halt the grinding of pencils to pay attention to the things that really matter and that will last: beauty and art and cultural awareness. I spoke to a group of bright, curious students who genuinely cared about writing, who made sophisticated connections and asked thoughtful questions. They made me feel most welcome. I wanted to stay.