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.
I regret deeply that I caused so much pain around me as I floundered with my emotions. You will find ways around this kind of mess in your life (of course, I hope you are spared, though I’m afraid it’s kind of inevitable), but the best way is through it, not around it. If you don’t slow down along the main drag of Paintown, past Heartbreak Hotel and that lonely self-service station at the edge of town near the on-ramp to the Blue Highway, the Paintown Police will catch up to you sooner or later, and they’ll be pissed.
The third most important thing you will ever do — and I sorely hope you do — is to become a father. The moment you were born at, I think, 3:02 a.m. at Beth Israel Hospital on Manhattan’s east side, I remember thinking: I have never done anything important before. If you are lucky and have a kid like yourself and the asshole gene doesn’t skip a generation and my traits crop up in your child, you will have a large degree of happiness in your life, and it will help you weather the worst of things.
I’ll let you ponder that while I fish into the nettles of my experience for more gems.
Speaking of police: don’t argue with cops. Be polite and cooperative. Otherwise you’re shafting yourself.
Eat a lot of protein (steak, fish, chicken), shine the carbohydrates (unless you have liver trouble like I do), and eat vegetables even if you have to force yourself; they will, if nothing else, often provide gratifying farts. But probably you shouldn’t listen to me about dietary matters.
Be generous with people who are less fortunate than you, and, as a strong man, defend those whom you can: those who need a little help — and it’s usually just a little. Don’t break the law unless the law strikes you as so asinine or immoral that you must. Jail is horrifying. If you ever find yourself in a cell, try to make sure that it is for a higher reason than you just fucked up. That may happen; if it does, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try to make it right with anyone you’ve hurt.
You are already in the habit of reading for pleasure as well as education, but I notice you limit yourself to fantasy and science fiction. That’s all right, but you are what you eat, and, like vegetables, you simply need certain nutrients. John Gardner, a good writing teacher and a novelist, advised young writers (and you already are one) to read Faulkner (you already have) and then read Hemingway to get the taste of Faulkner out of your mouth. Hemingway, too, can provide gratifying farts. Someday read Graham Greene for the way a sentence should be balanced. Read Elmore Leonard and Richard Price for the way that people talk; Dickens, not science fiction writers, for the way a world is created and a mass of life is set in motion on the page. Read every chance you get because there isn’t enough time. You’ll find life gives you just enough time for many important things but never reading. A lot of us die hungry for more. If you don’t get to Proust, don’t worry about it.
Let me see, I think I’ve already tried to impart to you some things I have learned the hard way, like that strategy in line at the movies for popcorn and Coke when the movie has already started: never get in a line behind an obese person — to say nothing of an obese family. It is like trying to pass a convoy of 18-wheel trucks going downhill. Forget about it.
Don’t go to war for any reason; it’s not a video game. The world never suffers from a shortage of patriots and lunatics who think war is glorious. Meat will always be provided for the grinder. If you feel the need to take part in some kind of war effort, do what you can to stop it.
Which leads me to politics. I have no advice here other than, choose your battles carefully; the cynicism rule of your mother’s applies here.
As for religion or spirituality, every time the subject has come up with us in the past you start talking about the Big Bang Theory or something. That’s all right; unless you’re an atheist or agnostic at 21, you’ll never, later in life, glimpse the true, majestic proportions of what we’re really dealing with here.
When in a hurry to get out of the grocery store, get in line behind a single, middle-aged, lonely-looking guy buying TV dinners and soup for one.
Pay attention to everything, even fools and idiots. You’ll be surprised what you can learn from the most unlikely people. Know that you are going to be smarter than most people around you and be patient with them, unlike me. Remember what little knowledge any of us ever really has at the end of the day.
When you think you’re going to die, it is the things you haven’t done, not the things you have, that you most regret. No matter what you do, you’ll probably have regrets, so don’t be afraid of temptation. Give in to it as least as often as you resist it.
Question authority — bumper sticker advice, I know, but still. The exception in this case is if the authority in question is carrying a firearm (see police above).
Music: this can be one of the major joys in life. It is the closest thing to actual magic that I can think of. Music can save your sanity. Music can make you cry when you need to and every impulse in your body is fighting it desperately. Bach can help you think, Mozart will offer you transcendence, a momentary reprieve from mortality, Wagner can make you seasick, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters can mirror a longing and dogged joy that is otherwise hard to articulate. Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Chet Baker can paint abstract pictures in your head, making a kind of sense out of the modern world that is otherwise unavailable. Rock and roll can set you free for a while. I don’t know what that heavy speed-metal crap is that was on the tape deck in your car the other day, but I hate it. And as long as at least one parent hates and misunderstands the music you’re into, you’re probably on the right track.
When things look bleak, try to remember that life is not a funeral march to the grave, it is more like the funky chicken. When your sense of humor is gone, even in grief, your soul is in trouble.
Never hesitate to admit it when you know you’ve been dead wrong about something. While some fathers would tell their sons never to apologize, I would urge you to do so when you’ve crossed a line with someone. In fact, with the women in your life, apologize in advance. You might as well.
Remember that life is mostly failure. That’s not as grim as it sounds. Success is inevitable too on some level or another and is almost always a result of a disheartening series of failures. You’re strong, you’ll survive them. A good friend of mine, a successful and acclaimed writer and editor, once told me, “Don’t be afraid to fail.” I thought it was an odd thing to say since she was taking a chance with me and her ass was on the line as much as mine, but I want to pass that along to you. I think this is important advice especially in your case, because you have so regularly succeeded at what you attempt. Still, I sense in you a hesitation to attempt things that might end in failure. Get over it. I would underline my friend’s advice if I could figure out how to do it on this laptop.
Remember that procrastination can be a bad sign. It can indicate a number of things from timidity to depression, but it is always a signal that you should pay attention to what’s going on with yourself. If you must procrastinate, put it off for as long as possible.
Surround yourself with children every chance you get. You have always been great with little kids and it pleases me; it’s a good instinct. If nothing else children will always provide something beautiful to look at. Adults are just degenerated youths with driver’s licenses, credit cards, academic degrees, and degrees of bad habits. They do come in handy, however, when you need to borrow money or jump-start your car.
That’s about everything I can think of for now. If you have any questions, e-mail or fax. We’ll do lunch. In the meantime, I’m proud of you.
Oh yeah. Floss.