Saturday, March 22, 2014

Dear Grandson (Part 1)

Dearest Beloved Grandson,

Although you are still in utero, I thought it might be a good time to start sharing life lessons for you to use as guidance in the years to come. A few months ago, your mother urged me to recommence writing Prairie Pondering after I mentioned that a friend, Charlie Leck, blogged regularly for several years in order to give his grandchildren a sense of who he was. Neither Charlie nor I will be around forever and we are using this vehicle to try to leave a legacy.

Lesson 1. Read. Learn to read. Love to read. I'm going to be up past my bedtime writing this tonight. If you are going to ignore Lesson 1, there's no point in my bothering. Your Papa (me) started reading voraciously at a very young age. As a result, I was able to travel through time and space from the comfort of my home. My vocabulary developed without having to resort to flashcards. My imagination flourished and I developed a moral compass from the stories I devoured rather than from sustaining a lot of negative reinforcement after blindly straying.

As a side benefit, if we think you're precocious, we'll give you extra attention. I spent hours playing Scrabble with your great-grandmother Pearl from the age of 8 or so on. I'll never forget the joy she expressed when I was able to beat her. I look forward to experiencing the same joy sitting across the table from you.

You may be thinking that these benefits are too deferred. After all, I had to pore through some World Books, the Wikipedia of my day, to develop that vocabulary. Here's a more immediate benefit. We'll leave you alone while you're reading and exercising your mind.

Beginning at 7 or 8 years old, I spent several weeks every summer with your great-grandmother Pearl and her husband, my Papa. My Papa was also an attorney. The brass lion on my desk I'll show you someday is from his office in Chicago. He would take me to his office on LaSalle Street in the Loop to spend the day. After awhile I would get bored in the office and would go on walks in downtown Chicago. I would count blocks from to Papa's office building so I could find my way back. I explored book stores. I would find a paperback of interest, return to the office and read. (Things have changed a bit so we probably won't let you wander around downtown Chicago by yourself when you're 8.)

One of the paperbacks I bought during one Chicago adventure was a series of short stories by Ian Fleming. It was called The Spy Who Loved Me. It told the story of a British secret agent, Bond. James Bond. Since this was two years before the first James Bond movie was released, neither my parents nor grandparents had any idea what I was reading. I have vivid memories of sitting in Chernins on Roosevelt Road while the family was buying shoes. I was engrossed in a James Bond novel, reading about women, cars, guns, the concept of tailoring slacks to allow for packing on one side or another, cocktails and spycraft. I overheard my mother commenting on what a good kid I was and how much I loved to read. I remember thinking, "if she only knew". They thought I was precocious and they left me alone. My choice of books was giving me immediate gratification without the tedium of flashcards.

By the time Dr. No was released in 1962, when I was 10, I had read all of Fleming's James Bond novels. I knew of the sparkling bays of Jamaica and the volcanoes of Japan. I had skied in the Alps and swum the coral reefs in the Caribbean. I developed an understanding of dialects on the streets of Harlem (as heard and conveyed by a mid-20th century British novelist) and explored the tunnels underneath Istanbul. I began to understand the importance of friendship and sacrifice and honor. Reading primed my curiosity pump and prepared me to want to explore the world. Follow Lesson 1 and you're in for a lifetime of wonder.

In case you're concerned, you won't need to go to Chicago to recreate my experience. I've been rereading the Fleming novels, downloading them one at a time chronologically onto my iPad. In a couple of years, when Mom and Dad take a night off and you're with Papa, I'll read them to you.

Lesson 2. Read the Torah. Your Papa was smart enough not to rely solely on Ian Fleming to teach him right from wrong. As part of my Bar Mitzvah training, I was required to read the Five Books of Moses and give a report on each chapter to my rabbi. The exercise paid dividends in its lessons about faith, ethics, being good, being bad, consequences, perseverance, rituals and self-reliance. You will learn that you control your own fate; no one died for your sins.

Don't ignore the subtle lessons as you develop your mind reading the Torah. It's not all burning bushes, escapes from Egypt and fights with Caananites . The chapters detailing the census can be viewed either akin to watching paint dry or as a window on how life was lived thousands of years ago. Start to understand how societies formed and how everyone had something to contribute to make a whole. It's no different today and you ARE your brother's keeper.

If you behave yourself and treat people with respect, you will be thought of as a mensch and will live a happier life. There are lots of rules to live by. Some you may choose to ignore and join me in San Francisco one day for Scoma's spicy cioppino on Fisherman's Wharf. Others, if you pay attention to the lessons of your forefathers, will guide you throughout life and make your Papa proud.

Lesson 3. Live Beneath Your Means. This is the first of many "do as I say, not as I do" lessons. But you might as well learn from my mistakes. That is as much the point of this exercise as exhorting you to follow in my footsteps. cf. Lessons 1 and 2. You need to be smarter than the marketing wonks who devise increasingly clever schemes to convince you to buy what they're selling. Remember the lesson of my favorite Garfield cartoon:

Put money aside on a regular basis and forget about it. Just decide to live on 95% of what you're taking in and you won't miss the funds as you save them. The independence and peace of mind you'll enjoy from not having to worry about not being in extraordinary debt is priceless. Your parents are good role models in this regard. Follow their lead and avoid pursuing shiny objects. To the best of my ability, I'll take care of your shiny objects.

Lesson 4. Google. As I thought about writing this, Lesson 4 was not anything I dwelled much on. But being able to illustrate Lesson 3 made me realize how important it is to know how to research and expand your knowledge base. The cartoon is one I regularly refer to in conversation. As I was writing, it occurred to me that I might be able to track it down. I typed "Garfield comic amazing what some people would rather have than money" and the exact 25 year-old comic strip I remembered appeared in a fraction of a second. Be curious; seek answers. And remember, if Google returns 35 million relevant hits in response to an inquiry, best to dig deeper to fully comprehend the matter at hand.

Lesson 5. Treat Everyone with Respect. When you were born, you shared the world with slightly more than 7 billion people. Initially, they all had moms; most had dads. Many had their own Papas and Grandmas. Each of them arrived to universal prayer, joy, hope and expectation of the best life possible. It makes absolutely no difference what color their skin is, who they choose to love or whether they can pee standing up without soiling their pants. (Actually, I'm getting to the age where that's not so much of a distinction.) You are incredibly lucky to have been born into a loving family able to provide shelter and food in abundance and to assure your education and preparation for life's challenges. "Lucky" is the operative word in that sentence and you do not have, and will never have, the right to judge as inferior anyone merely because they started out in different circumstances than you.

You need to educate yourself and live your life in a way that you can be confident and proud of your beliefs and intellect. cf. Lessons 1 and 2. Once you do, there's no need to agree with everyone or anyone else. But remember to be respectful to those you disagree with. Either they have come to disagree with you after their own thoughtful process, or they are to be pitied for not having availed themselves of the opportunity to be informed. Either way you'll often have to deal with them and understanding how to do so, and acting on it, will make life a lot easier.

Lesson 6. Don't be a Chump. Notwithstanding Lesson 5, you are going to meet a lot of people who, in addition to being pitied, are to be avoided. Not everyone is respectful of the rights of others; not everyone acts in a moral and ethical manner. Your Papa gives people the opportunity to behave in an appropriate fashion. But I don't eat apples or associate with people with rotten cores. As you grow older, you'll develop a sense of which fights to pick and which to avoid. It's okay to associate with the putz who eats his fish with his salad fork. It's not okay to maintain a relationship with the thief who pockets the fork. Ignoring rotten core behavior just sets you up to be a victim when convenient for the bad actor. Ignoring the warning signs until victimized makes you a chump.

Kunta Kinte (ask your mom), I have many more lessons to impart. We will discuss the significance of the Rat Pack, splitting aces and eights, friendship, family and Broadway musicals. When I'm done, you will not eat corned beef on white bread nor bet on the Vikings. We aren't scheduled to meet for another six weeks or so. I'll keep generating these missives for you between now and then and, likely, thereafter. Papa has to go to sleep so he can get up and muck horse stalls, the result of a mid-life paradigm shift undertaken to assure your grandmother's happiness. That's Lesson 10. 

Later, Squirt.

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