Letter to a Grandchild
Dear Grandchild (whatever your name is),
Tom Waits said, “Writing is like capturing birds without killing them. Sometimes you end up with nothing but a mouthful of feathers.” True enough, but this is just the sort of challenge that I relish. It’s just the sort of thing a person like me would do. I’m going to take the chance that I can deliver.
Deliver what? Soon it will become clear to you. I’m writing to you before I know your name, before you’re even born. I’m sitting here in my chair, at my computer keyboard. I’m listening to music and trying to keep my two cats from sitting on my lap. My lap is their real estate, and they both claim to have clear title. But I’m having none of it. Not on a day like today. It’s spring of 2019, and the dogwoods on our property are just beginning to bloom. Your Grandma and I moved here to Kentucky from Southern California a year ago, and today the workers we hired are building fences to contain your grandmother’s horses. I love being alive in this day and age. Alexa is the latest technology craze, and, of course, I have her on my desk. She is playing music for me as I write. As I type this sentence, I am listening to an old recording of Frank Zappa. A few minutes ago, I was listening to Glen Gould play Bach. Last night I was listening to a fascinating Ted Talk about the common house fly. When I was a kid, we used flypaper to capture and kill off the flies. When I was a kid there was no such thing as an Alexa, and no cellphones or personal computers or calculators. I can only imagine all the new and outrageous technologies you now have within your reach. Do you even know what flypaper is? Probably not.You probably know as much about flypaper as you know about slide rules.
But back to the business at hand. Your father is one of my two sons. Neither of my sons is married at the time I am writing this letter, but I am assuming that they (or at least one of them) will somehow, by some means, have children of their own, and that you will be one of them.
I wanted to write a letter to you that you could read when you were an adult, not just legally an adult, but after you had some years of life experience under your belt and were consequently able to better understand what I had to say. So, when has this letter been given to you? Obviously, not while I was alive, for you would’ve been too young. It would have to be after I died, and after giving it careful thought, I decided that you would receive this letter on my 120th birthday, or June 14, 2075. That seemed like as good a date as any. And how would I manage to get this letter to you? As you have just learned, I gave the letter to a trusted third party who was instructed to give it to you on the specified date. Weird isn’t it? It’s a little like I’m pulling strings from the grave. I am talking to you from the spirit world, yet I’m not really in any spirit world at all. Writing is like magic. It’s real magic, on real paper, not just a cheap illusion. Hopefully you’ll get more out of this trick than a mouthful of feathers.
Now you’re probably wondering just what in the world I felt was so important that I had to write about it “from the grave.” Family secrets? True confessions? Or was it to be the real reason why I refused to talk to my father for over thirty years? Or maybe I just wanted to tell a great joke?
No, the main reason I am writing this letter is because, more than anything, I wish I had received such a letter from one of my own grandparents. I hardly knew any of them. I was too young to talk to them about anything meaningful while they were alive, and as I grew up, they all died off. I have no idea what marvelous wisdom, experiences, and thoughts there were swirling around in their decrepit, life-worn brains. What did I really know about them? I mean really? I knew some facts about their lives. I knew of some places, events, and people my parents recounted and described for me. I also knew many of my grandparents’ shortcomings, which my parents had no problem telling me all about. But deep and meaningful talks, we never had. The closest thing to a deep and meaningful talk I had was with my father’s dad whose profound advice to me was to, “Keep your nose clean.” But that was about as deep as it got with the old guy. Keep my nose clean. So, like I said, I wish he had written me a letter. I wish all of my grandparents had written to me. Not a letter to me when I was young, but when I was old enough to get what they had to say, mature enough to listen, and wise enough to read between the lines. You should be all of these things by now. Hopefully you will get some ideas and thoughts out of this letter that are above and beyond a mere tug on a string from my grave.
Are you still on good speaking terms with your parents? I hope so. I made the mistake as a young man of shutting my own father off for thirty years. I had a right to be angry, but a regret the estrangement. Let me quote a paragraph from one of my books.
In this book the father toasts his son and bride at their wedding. He says, “Here’s what I have to say to you. Here’s my humble advice for a successful marriage. In fact, here’s my advice for a successful life. I thought long and hard about what to say to you today. I could tell you to always be honest with each other. But doesn’t that kind of go without saying? Everyone is going to tell you the same thing. I could also tell you to love each other, but I don’t foresee you having any problem with that. I don’t think you need any coaching here. Clearly your love is strong. I think you’ve loved each other from the first night you met. I could also tell you not to keep secrets. This is such good advice. Secrets are like poison, but doesn’t that go with the honesty advice? If you’re honest with each other, you won’t keep secrets. No, I don’t think that’s the advice I want to give. I guess I could also tell you to be patient. Don’t expect more than the other is capable of giving or doing. This is also probably good advice, but it’s still not what I want to say. No, what I really want to sat can be expressed in a single, marvelous word. And that word is forgiveness. I have lived a long time, and I have learned that this word is worth more than all the diamonds, rubies, and gold you can stuff into your pockets. Forgiveness is what it’s all about. Forgiveness is everything. As you travel through life, you’re going to discover that hurt will be as much a part of your daily routine as each breath you take. Every day, you’re going to hurt others, and they’re going to hurt you. And you’re going to hurt each other. And you’re also going to hurt yourselves. There’s no way to avoid it. And it can’t be ignored. It can’t be swept under the rug or put up in the attic. But if you can learn to forgive, you will hold the magic key. If you can learn to forgive others, and learn to forgive yourselves, you will live glorious and loving lives. I mean, you will truly live. And you will love in ways you never felt possible. You’ll soar over mountains, valleys, seas, and forests like eagles in the clouds. The world will be yours for the taking. God will be your sure partner, and life will be your friend.”
I shared this with my father when we began speaking again. I think it moved him. He framed the passage and put it by his desk. It meant a lot to him. And it should mean a lot to you. Learn to forgive, and life will indeed be your friend. It’s one of the most meaningful things you can do.
Ah, yes, I’m sermonizing. I will be doing that. I’m 120 years old, and I think I’ve earned the right to sermonize here and there. When you’re 120 years old, feel free to do your own sermonizing to your own grandchildren. In the meantime, it’s my turn to swing the bat. Let me tell you something. You probably already know that I became a writer late in life. Prior to that I was an attorney, and I was a good one. But when I was in college, I had several professors tell me that I ought to be a writer. I didn’t follow their advice. Here’s the problem with writing when you’re young. You’re stupid. It’s that simple. Some young people seem very precocious, but no one really matures ahead of their time. They may appear both young and wise, but true wisdom is only acquired through experience. I did think of becoming a writer when I was younger, and I wanted to do it, but you know what I discovered? I could pretend to know a lot about life until the cows came home, but I didn’t really know anything at all. Not really. And pretending to be wise is disingenuous, and it shows a lack of respect for your readers. And if you’re not genuine with your readers, you have no business writing. You are doing them a great disservice. Now, at the time I am writing this letter to you, I am 63. I am still learning about life every day, but I do, finally, have a lot to say that is worth listening to.
Of course, age and experience aren’t everything. They say, “There’s no fool like an old fool.” There’s a lot of truth in those words. So, what makes me think I have anything worthwhile to say? That’s a good question. But look at it this way: what have you got to lose by listening?
Now if you don’t listen to anything I have to say, do listen to this. Life isn’t worth living if you don’t have a sense of humor. It is as important to living a good life as sunlight and water are to God’s green earth. I have seen people who have lost their sense of humor, and it’s an awful tragedy. They are bitter, angry, sad, resentful, envious, mean, stern, prickly, and often easily offended. Don’t let these adjectives come to describe you. So, here’s a joke for you, and see if you think it’s funny. There’s a man and a woman who have been married thirty years. Suddenly one day, the wife drops dead in the house. The man calls their doctor to confirm she is dead, and they then call the coroner to come pick her body up. The men put the woman on a gurney and wheel her out through the front door, but as they go through the gate outside, they bump the gurney into a post. The woman sits up, and she is alive and breathing! The woman goes on to live with her husband another ten years, until finally she drops dead in the house again. The man calls the doctor to confirm, and they call the coroner. As they are wheeling the woman out of the house again through the front yard, the man shouts, “Whoa there, fellas! Watch out for that post!” You know, I’ve told this joke many times, and it still makes me laugh. Trust me, I love your grandma with all my heart. And I’m glad we got hitched. And life has been great. But the joke is funny as hell, especially if you been married for over forty years.
Milton Berle once said, “Laughter is an instant vacation.” But it’s really so much more than that, isn’t it? It’s the difference between a life enjoyed and a life wasted. Besides, I’m guessing you don’t even know who Milton Berle was. He was a comedian who liked to make people laugh.
Speaking of comedians, I want to say a few words to you about a comic named Lenny Bruce. If you haven’t heard of him, you can look him up on the Internet. When I was younger, I thought this guy was a genius. I really did. Aside from WC Fields (who really was a genius), Bruce was my favorite joker in the deck. But let me tell you about something I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older. Guys like Bruce have turned the performing arts, literature, and even a lot of today’s music into a cesspool. And I think it’s a shame. I don’t know what it’s like now in your day and age, but I fear they’re not much different. Maybe they’re even worse. I believe that there’s something so very important that we’ve lost in our love affair with free speech. Am I for censorship? Absolutely, I am not. But I am for people getting together and, without having their arms twisted, demanding class from the people who speak for them and to them. Yes, I did mean to say c-l-a-s-s. That little five letter word makes all the difference in the world. It’s the difference between shouting an offensive cuss word and using a carefully chosen adjective. It’s the difference between a clever double entendre and a lude and sadly obvious gag. It’s a kind-hearted jab rather than a mean-spirited kick in the groin. Anyone, from any walk of life, from any social position, from any economic footing can have class in spades. It costs one nothing, yet it’s priceless. Seek it. Have it. Hold onto it. You’ll never live to regret it.
You know who used to have class in my day and age? A fellow named Bill Cosby. He can also be found on the Internet. A class act. Someone you could look up to. But it turned out he was just another phony with no class at all. It was all a façade. Don’t let this happen to you.
Here’s something I’ve learned about hypocrisy. It’s easy to spot in others, but not so easy to spot in yourself. When I was younger, I spent a lot of my time being very angry over the hypocrisy I noticed in others, especially over the hypocrisy I saw in the people closest to me. I think a lot of people make this same mistake. And it is a mistake. Look carefully at what you say and do, and look carefully at the standards you set for others. Do you see what I mean? Are you being honest? If you are, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll discover that you’re far, far, from perfect, and that you’re probably no less of a hypocrite than the rest of the people you’ve been criticizing. So, rather than spend time pointing out the hypocrisy in others, direct your energy toward yourself. Don’t be the pot who calls the kettle black. Set a good example. Be the best you can be. Try to be honest with others about what you actually are, and do your best to be the sort of person you’re not ashamed to reveal.
Once you’ve decided who you are, and once you’re doing your best to live up to your standards, take another good look at the world around you. Now more than ever you will need to be tolerant. Now more than ever you will see a world full of people so different from you that it defies belief.
Let me tell you about a friend of mine. His name is Tom. He’s about ten years older than me, and I represented him when I was an active attorney. He’s now in his seventies, but retirement is the furthest thing from his mind. It’s not like he needs the money, but he works twelve hours a day, seven days a week, so there’s no letting up. Tom was a royal pain in the neck, and then some. To say he was a difficult client was like saying Donald Trump was slightly controversial. I mean seriously, Tom put my patience to the test each day that I struggled to work for him. He was not the sort of man I generally got along famously with. He was all things awful and against the grain. He was racist, sexist, crude, overbearing, opinionated, ugly, mean, and arrogant. So, what was his idea of a funny joke? “You know how to make your wife scream when you have sex?” he asked me. “You wipe your dick on the drapes when you’re done, ha, ha.” And his idea of a good time? It was suing some poor slob and putting him out of business. No, Tom was not generally the sort of man I went out of my way to befriend, but you know what? We became great pals. We are friends to this day, and have even worked on writing a book together. It’s hard to believe. Despite the fact that he is still the same irascible and obnoxious man as he was when I first met him, I like the guy a lot. I enjoy talking to him and working with him. He makes me think about things differently, and he makes me laugh. So, why am I telling you all this? You know, some will tell you, “People are all the same,” but they’re dead wrong. People are all different. And it’s the differences that make them so interesting, intriguing, and loveable. Keep an open mind when it comes to befriending others, and don’t shut people out just because they’re different from you. The more people you let into your life, the richer and more rewarding your time on earth will be. And who knows? Maybe a handful of your own attributes will rub off on them. I’d like to think I made Tom a slightly better man.
Gad, this letter is turning out to be longer than I had planned. I turns out that I had a lot more to say than I originally anticipated. Or maybe I’m going into too much detail. Hopefully I’m not boring you. Hopefully I’m just not telling you a lot of crap you already know.
Here’s something that you may or may not know. This is something I first learned as a teenager. I’m talking about a trap I see people falling into over and over. I call it the bullshit trap. When I was a teenager, I had an intensely negative view of the world. I did not like what I saw. I saw a world filled with hypocrisy, hatred, greed, dishonesty, stupidity, crassness, mediocrity, indolence, apathy, gossip, ire, perversion, filth, and so on. At that young age, I was the exact opposite of the man wearing rose colored glasses. Wherever I looked, I saw bullshit. Believe it or not, I didn’t think of myself as a pessimist. No, I thought I was just being true to life. I thought I was just being real. I remember my dad began to grow weary of my perpetual whining, and he said something to me that has stuck with me my entire life. He said, “There has been and will always be bullshit in the world. This is not news to anyone. The question is this: do you want to spend the rest of your life sticking your head into it, or do you want to let it alone and focus on all the good. It’s up to you. You have the power to decide.” Well, this was a revelation to me, and from that day forward I have tried to ignore the bullshit of the world and seek the good. And it isn’t easy. Once you try to do this, you suddenly realize just how obsessed with bullshit many people are and what a key role it plays in our society. It’s a shame, and it’s so easy to fall into the trap. But once you see the bullshit for what it is, the sun suddenly rises. You realize how much good there actually is. And you also suddenly understand that the bullshit is actually necessary, if for no other reason than to give the splendid things in life their meaning. There is no light without the threat of darkness. There is no warmth without the discomfort of cold. Do you understand what I’m getting at here? Once you master this viewpoint, the world will seem like a much better place.
Now let me take you to the dark side for a moment. Obviously, all is not delightful and blue skies twenty-four hours each day. Obviously, there are the stormy days we’d like to forget, events we wish never happened, people we wish we’d never met. But I say we should relish these days as well.
What the heck am I talking about? I’m going to be completely honest with you. I’m going to discuss something with you that is very personal. It’s a subject most people don’t like to talk about. Not at all. It makes them uncomfortable. They stick their fingers in their ears and try to change the subject. This topic? I’m talking about suicide. You may or may not relate to my experience with this, but it’s important that you to know about it. I have tried several times when I was younger to kill myself. Some of the times I tried harder than the others. Twice I have been hauled off to emergency rooms and then locked up in mental hospitals. There’s no point in going into all the gory details. I just want you to know of my history. Listen, here’s what they don’t tell you about suicide attempts. They do not elicit empathy or understanding from your loved ones. They cause people to be angry with you. The first time I tried to slit my wrists, my parents lived up in Northern California. My dad didn’t even come to see me. My mom came to pick me up from the mental hospital, but the first thing she said to me was, “You’re so fat.” Swear to God. I mean, yes, I was fat, but I didn’t need to hear about it from my mother on that day. I had just tried to take my own life, for crying out loud. My wife, who is your grandmother, was out of town during the whole fiasco, and when she returned and learned about what I’d done, she was furious. Seriously, I thought she was going to leave me. She said she couldn’t trust me and that she was utterly and indescribably disappointed in me. The truth is, I almost felt worse after talking to your grandmother than I did on the night I tried to take my life.
Here’s what I’ve learned about suicide. No one, and I mean no one, is really going to get how you felt unless they’ve been in your shoes. That night was probably the lowest and most horrific nadir of my entire adult life. You may be wondering why I brought it up, and I’ll tell you.
But first, do you like suicide jokes? Have you heard the one about the two drunks who are in a bar watching the ten o’clock news? A suicidal man on the TV is about to jump off a building ledge, and the first drunk says to the second drunk, “I’ll bet you fifty dollars he jumps.” The second drunk thinks about it, and then he agrees to the bet. Sure enough, the man on TV jumps to his death and everyone in the bar screams. The second drunk pulls out his wallet and tries to make good on the wager. “No, no, no,” the first drunk says. “Put away your money. I have to tell you the truth. I saw the man jump earlier when I was watching the five o’clock news at home.” The second drunk says, “Well, I saw that too, but I didn’t think the guy would be dumb enough to do it again.” Remember what I said about having a sense of humor? Go ahead and laugh. It’s a good joke. Listen, we all have our own horrible moments. Maybe you’ve had your own. Maybe they were different from mine, or maybe they were similar. No matter. The point is that if we can survive them, we ought to be grateful as hell, and we ought to be able to look back on those times without feeling angry, guilty, embarrassed, or sad. Yes, we ought to be able to come up with a smile. And that’s what I’m trying to tell you here. You should be glad that you’ve seen the black depth of your own grave. Having been there makes the blue sky and clouds and sunlight above all the more precious. Every day is now a gift. And every opportunity is a blessing.You know, I could go on and on writing this letter. I could probably make an entire book of it. I’ve been known to do that. I do like to write. But I’m going to stop soon, not because I have no more to say, but because this is a letter and not a full-length novel.
Just a few parting thoughts before I say goodbye. First, you should know that it’s not important for you to be the best anything. It’s important that you do your best, but no one is ever the best at it all. There are too many facets in life to judge, and there is too much ground to cover. You might be the best at one thing while failing miserably in another. That’s failing. I say, just do you best, as you can, when the opportunity arises. That’s all anyone has a right to ask of you. Second, don’t be greedy. It doesn’t seem like this should need to be brought up, but it probably does. Unless you’re truly different from everyone else in the world, you will have to fight off greed every day of your life. I have yet to meet anyone whose default position is being happy with less. I’m not just talking about money. I’m talking about power, love, respect, authority, social status, leisure time, and so on. We all want more than we need. It’s just human nature, but the wise learn to curb their appetites. Third, and finally, you need to learn to love. Learn to love others, and learn to love yourself. I can’t stress enough the importance of this and how it will improve your life if you learn to love. If you take this to heart, you’ll find it awful hard to get into trouble.
Well, I suppose I should stop here. I have a feeling I’ve only scratched the surface, but hopefully I’ve got you thinking. There is so much more to life than meets the eye. It’s my wish that you will go on in earnest and smile and laugh and learn to take full advantage of the amazing gift you’ve been given.
Which is life!
When it’s all over, and everything is said and done, you will have regrets, but you want to be able to say you gave it your all. And how damn lucky are you? How many people can say they opened their mail box and found a letter from their one-hundred-twenty-year-old grandfather?