Not So Similar a.k.a. My Pop
Late the night before Thanksgiving: the shredder’s broken so my father’s cutting up documents by hand.
I had to watch him for a full minute before I could discern exactly what he was doing and why.
That’s an overstatement. I only know half of the "why": because the shredder's broken. But I still don’t know exactly why he’s doing it. I’ll never understand exactly why he does a lot of things. My father has no documents so important as to require shredding. So, why does he own a shredder? And when the shredder’s not working, why does he feel compelled to take a pair of scissors to the innocuous sheets? If I asked my mother I’m sure she’d answer me with two more questions: “Who knows why your father does half of the things he does? Why do you have to use three separate bathrooms to get ready in the morning?” What my mom doesn’t understand is that one of the bathrooms is for showering and shaving, one is for combing my hair and one is for brushing my teeth. What I don’t understand is why my father shreds drafts of letters he never sent and receipts that contain no personal information.
My mom likes to think my “unexplainable” behavior (which is wholly explainable) and my father’s unexplainable behavior are somehow allied. Well mom, they’re not. This is one of many faulty notions shared by my mother and most other people who know both my father and me. There is this HUGE misconception that my father and I are very similar. We’re not. We DON’T look alike. We DON’T sound the same. We DON’T behave like one another. I’m not pointing out our differences because of a disdain for my father. I’m pointing them out because I know something no one else knows: I'll never be the man he is.
He was in the Marines (voluntarily). He did Air Rescue. At twenty years old he regularly jumped out of perfectly good helicopters to climb into completely wrecked (sometimes burning) airplanes in order to help people he didn’t know.
At twenty years old I sat on my ass most of the day and complained about being in college…a college I chose to attend, a college in which I remained enrolled despite my incessant whining about it.
After the Marines my father worked three jobs to put himself through college and pay for his mother’s cancer treatments.
I’ve had three jobs…in my life.
My father can correctly answer questions as disparate as “Hey Pop, when I turn the steering wheel in the Plymouth why does it go ‘weeehrrrr’?” and “Hey Pop, what’s the whole story behind WWI starting?”
I can correctly answer questions as disparate as “Did Godard ever direct a movie with Julie Delpy in it?” and “Did Charlie Chaplin really direct a movie about a serial killer based on a script by Orson Welles?” [the answer to both of those is “yes” by the way]
My father can tell you why the light in the garage is going ‘nnnnnnnn’ and I can tell you whether or not Pedro Almodovar is gay.
My father (with quite a bit of assistance from my mother, I’ll grant you) raised my brothers and me into fairly decent people: a task which seems to increase in difficulty with each successive generation.
I can’t teach my dog to not steal food off my plate: a task which should be rather simple as his breed has been domesticated for over 200 years (that's, like, a lotta generations).
There’s a story that perfectly illustrates the difference between my Pop and me.
I was fourteen. We were in Barnes & Noble. I was trying to find “Welcome to the Monkey House” by Kurt Vonnegut. I didn’t know I was looking for “Welcome to the Monkey House” at the time, I just knew I was looking for the book that had “Harrison Bergeron” in it. We’d been there a while, and I still didn’t have a book in my hand, so my father asked:
“What are you looking for?”
“’Harrison Bergeron’” I said.
“But you’re in the ‘V’ section.”
“It’s by Kurt Vonnegut.”
I gave him the sassiest fourteen-year-old look with a scoffing grunt and said:
“When did you stop reading? Was Eisenhower still president?”
My father didn’t get pissed. He didn’t tell me to stop looking for my fucking book because my ungrateful ass & I were going home. He didn’t tell me that my shitty attitude & I had no right to talk to him that way.
What he did do: he laughed.
Laughed, not because of his indolent son’s arrogance;
but because the Ike comment was funny.
For years afterward, anytime he didn’t know something he would imitate my scoffing grunt and say “When did you stop reading?” making fun of himself, pointing out his own shortcomings.
In the years that followed that trip to Barnes & Noble I would occasionally think
of my father as the only guy in his generation who didn’t know who Kurt Vonnegut was.
In the years that followed that trip to Barnes & Noble my father took it upon himself to read “Mother Night”, “Slaughterhouse-Five” and eventually “Welcome To the Monkey House”.
We’re not as similar as people think...and my bathroom usage is not like his manually shredding papers at midnight before Thanksgiving...But I wish it was.
Originally Printed 11/25/04
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