My wife, Carol, got up at 3:15 Thursday morning for a 6:30 fight to Denver. It’s the first time in over 30 years that one of us went to visit while the other stayed home.
I have two sons, one by Carol, and the two other children by my ex-wife. My son by my ex-wife, James, is turning fifty, and my daughter, Tandis, also half-Iranian, is thirty six, divorced and raising two young girls. Carol’s son, Chris, forty-seven, (I think), did me the honor of adopting me a few years ago. At a gathering in Denver last October, his father and I were in the same room, and Chris introduced his dad and turning to me he said, “And this is my father.” My son James and Chris, share the same generous nature.
Chris and I grew up together. He was a very impish, mischievous, willful, and a brilliantly intelligent child. His mother and I fell in love right away, and I soon moved in with her. But being newly in love is fraught with its own uncertainties, ignorance, vivid fear, and widespread touchiness because the lovers are so vulnerable. I feared that Carol was not lost in my love the way I was lost in hers, and her deepest fear is that I didn’t belong to her the way she belonged to me. When I would blow up at Carol, or she at me, I would grab some clothes and books, and leave the house, but no sooner had I reached the front door, then I would find Chris at my side, “I’m coming too,” he said. And that was always the case. He provided a steadying ballast for that tempestuous sea of early passion and early love, and we grew very close.
Chris, like James, is a single father who has proved an amazingly competent and loving parent. He is kind, encouraging, very strict when he has to be (but only when he has to be) and has raised by himself two teenage boys who are everything a father could wish: they are thoughtful, generous, honest (most of the time,) alive to life and receptive to new ideas and new experiences. Their minds are sound and sympatric. They read because they know that to know more is to be more. They remember. They reflect. They build our hopes along with theirs. They are achievers.
There is a passage in the Ethics by John Dewey, which quotes William James: “When I am moved by self love to keep my seat whilst the ladies are standing or take the biggest portion to cut out my neighbor, what I really love is that comfortable seat. It is the thing itself that I grab. I love them primarily like a mother loves her babe, or a generous man his heroic deed. Whenever, as here, self-seeking is the outcome of a single instinctive propensity, it is but a name for certain reflex acts. Something rivets my attention fatally and fatally provokes the selfish response. In fact, the more I am utterly selfish in this primitive way, the more blind my absorbed thought will be in the objects and tendencies of my lusts and devoid of any inward looking glance.”
(My memory is declining a bit. My ability to remember complicated passages has been a bit compromised by time.)
One phrase in particular passage stands out, “In fact, the more I am utterly selfish in this primitive way, the more blind my absorbed thought will be in the objects and tendencies of my lusts and more devoid of any inward looking glance.”
“The more I am utterly selfish in this primitive way” is a startling and scary phrase. It stirs misgiving deep down inside us because it’s true. We are born utterly selfish, and only insight or inducements or penalties curb such vicious things in us. Even as an adult, some of that selfishness remains. We have a three- man yard crew, who cut our grass of our lawn in Durham. I drink Gatorade during the day to stay hydrated, and one morning, my wife came in and said she was going to bring the crew Gatorade because of their hard work on such a hot day. And my immediate instinctive reaction to ask that by giving them Gatorade, will I still have enough on hand for me to get through the day?
First of all, such a thought is infantile and entirely shameful. And your conscience instantly flinches at even having such a selfish thought, and you strive to correct it and do the thing you should do –give them men the Gatorade that they have worked so hard to earn.
But that inborn, instinctive selfishness is alive in each of us and must be corrected or crushed. For example, one of the most despicable acts to panic when a mishap or a dangerous situation occurs. Panic basically tramples flat all your moral obligations while saying, “Me, Me, Save Me” at the top of its voice. Panic ignores what other people might feel or suffer. Whether they live or die, you see, is not your problem. Your only duty is to save yourself by any means, no matter how self centered or ruthless. But what sort of self do you end up saving? It has little moral worth,, little spiritual value; it displays little nobility or charity. It isn’t noble . Selfishness objectifies the worst defects or ordinary human nature.
When my wife and I experience turbulence during a rough flight, I never waver in my vow not to panic, not to scream or alarm others, but to stay calm and not behave shamefully. I have always told my wife that if our plane is really going to crash, the last sensations she will feel here on earth, will be me kissing her, kissing her for all the love she gave, for all the help and steadiness she impacted to me, for all of her efforts to lighten my bodily burdens; I will be kissing her in order to honor for all of her kindness, her decency, generosity and all the passionate intimacy and pleasure I have enjoyed at her hands. She was my reason for living. That is what will be in my kiss.
But every family a small child has parents that either instruct them to attempt to have an ideal self or it allows them be run of the mill. Every human being’s soul is a battleground. Education is but another name for ethical struggle. Primitive selfishness is the horror that parents must avoid in their children.
And once a parent has successfully raised a child, there remain uncomfortable questions that a parent must answer. How well did I do in life, taking into account my now proven lack of talents and deficiencies of temperament? Did I succeed with our children. To what degree? As parents we, of course, poured precepts f fairness, honesty and charity over the heads of our children, but what innate selfish impulses did we ourselves go to war with before they were born? How did we fare in extinguishing them? What does a loving parent instill in a child that makes him want to have an ideal self?
The lives of our children give us a partial answer. It is clear they did not, for the most part, repeat our mistakes. They did better. They corrected and improved and stayed clear of our errors most of the time.
My day has a new routine. In the early morning I have to go and put out the light on the front porch, then put out the light on the back porch, then put out the light burning in the garden. I basically can’t walk very well, thanks to three surgeries and two strokes, but I am also quite determined.
My companion is my male cat, Honey Bear who has adopted me an my wife. He was with a family next door. His foot has been run over in the street, and they found him and took him in. The father was allergic to cats. They kept him in the garage, even in winter. The young boy there called the cat, “Gimpy.” When we moved in next door in January of 2010, I had so much Post traumatic Stress that the world was unrecognizable, and I could not bear to go outside until April. In private, I was, unsure of everything. I used to take a dull knife and practice slitting my throat, it was that bad. What prevented me was my love for my wife. So one day, I sat in the porch chair, dazed, when a little animal suddenly walloped up into my lap. It was Gimpy. You see, cats read people’s hearts. Take warning when a person boasts that they aren’t “cat people.” Cats not only are kind, but they are loyal to any kindness shown them. My wife, Carol, soon began to feed Gimpy, and I promptly renamed him, Honey Bear, replacing the heartless, Gimpy. I knew he was abused if you raised a hand over his head, he cringed and fled. That first year, I was on a walker, and the cat feared the walker and stayed away. But on my birthday the next March, a year later, as I sat in the living room, Honey Bear suddenly leaped into my lap, rubbing his head against my leg. Soon, I was able to dispense with the walker, and he was no longer afraid of me. And we became chums.
With my wife away, Honey Bear and me are constant companions. This morning, he climbed up in my chair in the family room, wedged his body close to mine, stretched out fully, and then began to twist his head back and forth, purring with a loud sound. A cat needs a lot of affection. They are like the rest of us.
The first thing I did when my wife left for five days was to turn off the TV news. There is no worthwhile news in TV news. TV news is an incessant repeating of what already is well known. It never provides insights or illustrations or examples. There is a smug arrogance about TV news plus the people discussing the news bring the news down to their own level, and that level is in insult to the history of intelligence. In addition, there are disconcerting interruptions. Every few minutes of broadcasting brings on a blizzard of commercials that are repeated so often, so loudly, that they remind you of the regularity of the sunrise except they never set. They are repeated so many times every hour that they produce a stupefying effect. We Americans have become used to being shouted at by slick pitchmen who have been hired by ruthlessly commercially greedy people who told them to repeat endlessly some advertisement, no matter how stupid, as long as it brings in a new customer. God!
So I shut off the TV. The silence was full of rest and peace. My house contains between, 3000-2500 books. They are stored in different rooms. In the living room, are the biographies and studies of the Greeks and Romans; at the west end of the room are histories of the Civil war and World War II. Then they are the political biographies, an eight volume set of Lincoln, a gift from my wife, plus memoirs that range from FDR, to Johnson, to Kennedy to Reagan.
In my sitting room, there is a sloppy miscellaneous of things I am trying to read. Most are in progress.
My office is also crammed with books of history and philosophy, some of which I’ve read, others I haven’t. Seeing them unread always brings a twinge of regret to my heart.
But yesterday, I did a freeing thing. In my wife’s make up room, there are a lot of books that for me, being half crippled, are difficult for me to get to. So yesterday, I toddled in and let my eyes scan the riches. Several things got the dogs of ambition barking in my soul, a biography of Talleyrand books by Maritain, the French philosopher. But then I reached up and found "The Lives of the Artists" by Vasari, and Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson. I first read Johnson in 1971, and I reread him, but had not entered he date where I’d read him last. I’ve learned to enter that last date.
But what an exhilarating and vivid intelligence of language and powerfully insightful ideas Johnson displayed. In Vasari, I read a wonderful portrait of the Renaissance artist, Giotto who was such a hard, careful, incessant worker. As I went about the house, I felt like a hungry child who knows exactly where the cookies are and yet don’t have the means to reach them. I can’t savor them because, as I am now, they remain beyond my reach. Reading people like Johnson or Dewey who are so spacious of soul and who display such wide breadth of intellect is exhilarating, but it also acts to depress. I ask, why wasn’t I more fortunate, more gifted, and more articulate than I turned out to be?. Why was I never able to reach their level? Their great works stand like peaks in the distance. They are there. I can approach them, but to reach them and enjoy their summits is beyond my capacity.
The most delicious moment of my day is the calls from my daughter, Tandis, and my wife. My daughter treats me with such love that I revere her. My wife’s calls reunite us in pleasure and appreciation. I am thrilled that she with her son, our son, among his friends and some of her old her friends from high school who live there in Denver -- all of whom admire and love her. The things she recalls and savors and treasures always lift my spirits. We may be apart but she is with me. And I am with her.
Last night our son made a fire in the fire pit in back of his house, and Chris, one of his boys, and my wife sat by the fire and started to sing, “Cats in the Cradle,” “Piano Man,” and others. Old Times. Is anything better?
William James said, “There is an ideal self to which we must be true, no matter what we suffer,” Our marriage has made us try to keep us true to this vow, and our children have chosen to honor it as well.
As I write this, the cat is asleep, curled up next to me, his paws crossed over his face.