The author and his son
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Dear Son,

On the occasion of your 21st birthday I’ve considered all kinds of gifts from cash to a watch that runs backward, but I have decided on this, at least: a list of some of the things I now know at 47 and wish I knew at the age of 21. I wonder if any of it will help you.

The first thing that comes to mind is that bell bottoms are a big mistake. I realize this information is only so useful, like the knowledge that one should use a condom when doing drugs — no one does anyway. But I will try to think hard about this. It is difficult because our lives are so different. It is impossible not to think about my own 21st birthday.

I have no recollection of it whatsoever. I only recall that your mother and I were just back from hitchhiking around Europe, we were broke and briefly sharing an apartment with a friend on 98th Street and Riverside Drive in Manhattan. I was working as Christmas help at a giant bookstore on Fifth Avenue, had long hair, a beard, and no January rent. My own father had been dead for three years, and I had been traveling since then. I was already cynical in a way that I hadn’t quite earned: a kind of preemptive strike against a world I knew was out to kick my ass.

I have known you your whole life, and you have, thank God, no traces of this malaise. Your mother once wrote, in her first short novel, that “Cynicism is the laziest of intellectual postures.” This is something true. I have become more cynical rather than less, lazier rather than more enterprising. I do not — and again I do thank God — see you traveling down a road anything like the one I’ve traveled.

You already know the value of hard work and money. I have never really appreciated the value of money. In this way I have remained strangely, even belligerently naïve. You are working your first real job at Boston Market and have been reliable and steadily promoted, all the while taking college courses. I quit the Art Institute of Chicago after six weeks so that I could travel with a rock band.

One of the traits we do share is an abiding curiosity about the world we live in and ones we do not. I remember one night down in Mexico, around your tenth birthday, when I pointed out the spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy where we reside. When I explained to you the dimensions of what we were looking at, I could see the wonder and reality of it dawn on your face, and I was so very happy that I was the one who, in a sense, pulled a curtain away to expose a miracle.

You have since pursued astronomy, physics, and biology with appreciation, understanding, puzzlement, awe, and hunger. To say that I am very proud of you says nothing of how I feel. I will tell you something else I am certain I have never told you. It may sound like an unusual thing to say, but I respect you in a way I do not respect many people. I say unusual because I wonder how common it is for parents to respect their children. Not very, is my guess.

This leads me to the irony, the presumption of this letter: that is, telling you things you should know, that I wish I knew at your age. More to the point is that I wish I knew then what you already know. I wish I had more of your qualities and fewer of my weaknesses. I would have liked to have had your implicit understanding of a few vital things, like getting intoxicated or stoned is mostly a deplorable waste of time, that sex for its own sake is irresponsible, that a structured education has distinct advantages over the autodidactic approach, and that patience and humility are a strength, arrogance and intolerance an abomination.

I would also like to know how to get to level nine on the CD-ROM video game Star Smashers of the Galactic Reich — something you do with ease and yet has eluded me.

On a practical level, I think it’s safe to say this much to you at this point in your life: chew with your mouth closed. I’ve tried drilling this into your head — well, jaw — since you went on solid food. I’m not saying you’ll never get laid unless you correct this habit; many successful friends of mine eat like swine and get poon for days, but I’m just saying it is disgusting. Picking your nose when you pull up to a stop light is another thing I would urge you to think about. Everybody does it, yeah, yeah, I know, but hey, man, you’re not invisible in some magic way at a stop light. You look like a pig, a moron, a slob. Don’t get me wrong, I love you. Just don’t do that, okay?

Life Lesson: #9.3. Sorry, I may be getting a little ahead of myself, but I cannot resist the impulse to warn and advise you on the subject of loving women. This may well be unnecessary…but here you go. I think it was John D. MacDonald who said it (I’m not sure, but it stands): “Never go to bed with a woman who has more troubles than you do.” This undoubtedly will sound sexist to someone, but I would give the same advice to a daughter if I had one — about men, you know.

Don’t be afraid to love. On balance, it will be one of the two or three most important things you will ever do. The work that you choose will be one of those things, whether you become a writer or a scientist, a gardener, a teacher, a janitor, a stockbroker, a stockboy, or a CEO — choose something that makes you happy more often than it makes you miserable. The same with those you choose to love. Sometimes it seems that we do not get to choose these people, but actually we do — trust me. Most of us love the wrong person at some time or another in our lives, often more than once, and it can cause you more pain than a giant tumor over your heart. I’m speaking literally; I’ve had both (remember?) and my instinct is to go with the tumor, but there is too much to say for risking your heart, lymph nodes, liver, bowels, and brain for love. I would not have arrived at the abiding happiness I find with the woman in my life these days if I had not gone through the madness that I did.

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