About 16 years ago, on his 80th birthday, I walked across town to deliver my father's final birthday present. He died a few weeks later, and our parting was not an amicable one. I think of him still, sometimes with a tinge of nostalgia, sometimes with resentment or a bit of both. When tilting to the nostalgic side, I think of his quotes. Some may not have been his, but he made a convincing they were.. One in particular was a reply to my mother who chided him for not having many friends. My dad looked at her dryly and said "Why listen to the words of fools when I can read the words of kings?" Adjusting for gender, that statement stayed with me. He was an avid reader, as our mountain of books- where most men would place bowling trophies and underwear- would attest. In the end, it may have played a part in his demise. When my parents bought a condominium in 1994, the reduction in space from their old, dilapidated, but roomy apartment required him to get rid of most of his collection. True, there were guides to accounting practices from 1954 and triple copies of "On the Road" and "Our Lady of the Flowers", but a lot of great works of fiction, cultural theory, history, art history, theatre, and political science had to go. It broke him. He became depressed, clinically so, and it took months of treatment for him to accept his new house and the aesthetics of surroundings based more on the scenery of Mount Royal and varnished wood than a sea of paper and stale glue. I say aesthetics honestly - he certainly didn't have time to catalogue the mess, and spent most of his final years reading newspapers and magazines. Had he lived longer, he would have been a geriatric convert to the Internet, no doubt.
His love of books hurt him in another way - he became quite the hermit and misanthrope, rarely seeking the company of anyone other than my mother and occasionally me. I think he would have benefited from a few more actual friends. Still, I can see why he caught the isolation bug. I just finished one outstanding novel, "Carnival" by local writer, Rawi Hage, and have quickly been absorbed in another, "The Marriage Plot", by Jeffrey Eugenides. Despite it's mixed reviews, I find it truly entertaining. I guess it has a lot to do with having been a college student in the early 80's- the music, dress, political issues, and eternal love triangles of the emerging story bring me back to a more innocent time of youthful folly, and the dilemma of students facing life after their undergrad degree is something I face daily. It also makes the people around me, strangers mostly, more annoying. I love my immediately family, my students, and am sympathetic to the shared flaws of my family of co-workers. Everyone else astounds me with their selfishness, general rudeness, self-importance and ignorance. A waitress undercharged me by ten dollars yesterday and was astonished when I didn't pocket the money. I'm in debt like many others but know she has to be in worse straits if she is waitressing at a tacky restaurant on a miserable, industrial boulevard. For others -content in ripping her off- I guess it's a way of clawing back from a society that taxes us to death and preys on our low self-esteem to sell us things we don't need. I know I should just "let go" and show empathy for those who struggle in silence as I do. Everyone just seems so miserable, yet arrogant about how it can't be their fault. I believe in taking ownership of personal failure. Writers and kings do it so eloquently, as this little passage from "The Marriage Plot" will attest:
"Some people majored in English to prepare for law school. Others became journalists. The smartest guy in the honours program, Adam Vogel, a child of academics, was planning on getting a Ph.D. and becoming an academic himself. That left a large contingent of people majoring in English by default. Because they weren't left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical -because they weren't musical, artistic, financially motivated, or really all that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they'd done in first grade: reading stories. English was what people who didn't know what to major in majored in."