To: Ruby & Hazel
In Re: Cussing
There’s just no time, girls, no time for anything. And I’m afraid there’s going to be a lot of work to do in the coming years.
Yesterday, Ruby, you flung the bathroom door open and caught me peeing. You were horrified. You said, “Dad! Why are you holding your penis?!” These types of questions are why I write you these informative memos. So much to learn!
You were dressed up like Laura Ingalls Wilder, with the sun bonnet and the apron and all that, which made the situation somewhat more awkward for me. But anyway.
I said, “Why don’t you get outta here.”
You said, “It’s disgusting, daddy!” You’re 4 right now, Ruby, but you’ll be five in a month. Zuzu is 2. I said, “I have to aim or else I’ll pee on the seat and everywhere.”
You said, “Why don’t you just squat down over the toilet and hang your penis in there, and then you don’t have to touch it?” You demonstrated by doing a deep squat and placing your hands on your hips.
I said, “Can you just get out of here?”
You walked away. From the kitchen, you yelled, “Your penis is VERY embarrassing.” But it sounded like this: “Yo penis is VAYWEE embawassing!” because you can’t say your Rs.
Cussing is what people like me – from Kansas – call swearing, or using foul language. Laura Ingalls Wilder would know what I’m talking about. Pa didn’t cuss so much around the house, but I bet you when he was out all day on the prairie, doing whatever it was he did out there, he cussed like crazy. “Hurry the fuck up, Patty. These fucking wolves are about to eat my goddamned leg off!” He had a whole house full of girls, probably asking him questions about his embarrassing penis.
I don’t have a prairie, girls, that I can traipse around in. I work from home at my computer. I make breakfast and lunch and dinner for you and your mom.
Cuss words are words like shit, damn, hell. That kind of thing. There’s nothing inherently bad about these words. They’re just words. And words are just sounds we use to represent other things. Language probably feels inherent, though, because it feels so innate to us, and because language is the way we experience and explain the world.
Inherent means existing in something as a permanent or essential attribute. Feet are gross, but they are not inherently gross. That they are gross is my own truth. Feet are feet and some people love them. Some people might love getting hit in the face, I suppose. Not my truth.
I do love your feet, both of you. They’re very small and sweet and wiggly at this very moment. I love your mom’s feet. But I wouldn’t want to go for a hike and then pal around with them on the couch.
We’re not supposed to cuss at or around kids. The idea is that shit, damn, and hell, and so on, are bad for you to hear. I was listening to the neighbor over the fence the other day. She was telling her friend (I couldn’t see either of them) about her fucking lunch. She said, “Then I had my fucking lunch. I got a hamburger and shit, and some fries. I was fucking hungry. Where the fuck is Steve?”
Guys, I don’t know who Steve is, and it was a lot of cussing, but it was really just a lazy way to make a boring story a little more interesting. Adding cuss words can add a little zing to a sentence. That was her intention with that language. It was pretty harmless.
When I heard about her fucking lunch and that sonofabitch, Steve, I was sitting in a faded plastic Adirondack chair in the backyard of your childhood home. I was writing up a TV show for this media organization that wants to make a TV show. They produce presentations. People stand on a stage wearing a Janet Jackson microphone and try to explain to an audience how what they’ve been doing is surprisingly wrong, and how robots will help them do it better.
They put these presentations online and I’m addicted to them. So are other people. They’ve been viewed well over a billion times. People like to be told how surprisingly wrong they are, I guess. And now they want to make a TV show about it, so they asked me to write it.
Janet Jackson was the sister of Michael Jackson, who was one of the world’s biggest pop stars. Janet, however, had quite an amazing life. When she was a little girl, she played the role of Penny on the sitcom Good Times, about a family struggling to survive in a rough housing project in Chicago. Hilarious, I know. Then Janet, or Ms. Jackson, if you will, began a very successful musical career. Then, in a strange twist, everyone watching one of the Superbowls, which was a football game they did every year, saw one of her boobs at halftime.
It was part of something they called a “wardrobe malfunction,” and people were simply horrified, just like you were when you saw me holding my penis. Conservative groups wrote strongly worded editorials complaining that Janet Jackson’s boob was evidence of our declining morals, and the FCC received 540,000 complaints. People were simply appalled. It was vulgar, they said. I imagine Laura Ingalls’ Ma would have agreed. Maybe she would have fainted. America was coming apart by the seams, like Janet Jackson’s shirt.
By the time you read this, when you’re 20 and 18, respectively, the Superbowl boob thing will have no relevance to anything. It really isn’t relevant right now.
Anyway. In one of her music videos, Janet Jackson used a microphone that was also a headband. Now, everyone calls microphones like that Janet Jackson Microphones.
Not everyone calls them that.
I call them that.
Nobody calls them that.
I have deadlines, girls. I’m almost 40 as I write this. Someone wants me to do something and I have to just do it. I work in the yard or at the table or in the attic or at this coffee shop called Outdated in Upstate New York where you girls mostly grew up and where everyone knows you. I work from home and that’s lucky, but I’m always just barely behind. Still, I lay on Ruby’s floor at night while you go to sleep, and I listen to your breathing and to the sound you make when you suck your thumb as you, Ruby, drift off to dream about life on the prairie and as you, Hazel, try to will yourself to sleep so you can dream about elephants.
The neighbor who was talking about her fucking lunch and that idiot Steve paused after her exhilarating story, and I heard a child’s voice. He said, “Can I color, mommy?” He’d been there the whole time, I guess. It was a little jarring to think about the kid sitting there while his mom was cussing so much, even if her cussing is harmless and has no inherent meaning.
I guess what bothered me about it was the intention. I think Ma, and probably Pa, America’s original heartland conservative, would agree with me. It’s the human intention behind the words that make them either bad or good.
We were driving to Target and we got behind a truck with this bumper sticker that said, “Want my guns? Come and get them.” And there was a silhouette of a guy pointing a gun at us. His intention was to show us that he was willing to shoot us. That language is dangerous and lazy.
In Kansas where me and Laura Ingalls grew up, there were a lot of guns. No one wanted to take them from anyone else, and I’m dubious of claims that there is an organized movement to take anyone’s guns now. A kid named Donny (not his real name) tried to sell me one in English class sophomore year. He had it in his pants. I almost bought it, but I didn’t and I’m glad I didn’t. I sometimes went to the shooting range to shoot guns. Not so often. But sometimes.
So the bumper sticker on that truck has no inherent meaning, but the intention is to shut down discussion and to threaten those who oppose him with a violent death. My sense is that if the guy driving the truck met you girls, or if he and I met at the store, shooting us wouldn’t even cross his mind, and he’d probably be embarrassed if he knew we were afraid that he was going to shoot us. Maybe not. But the bigger point is that his bumper sticker is a lazy, stupid way to make a point.
There’s a man named Donald Trump who is running for president this year. Once he said he could grab women’s pussies if he wanted to, whether or not they invited him to do so. He said because he’s rich and famous, women will allow that. A pussy is sort of a cussword for female sex organs, or front keisters, as you guys call them. In any case, the people who were so appalled at seeing Janet Jackson’s boob said almost nothing about this. They said he was just making “locker-room talk” with a pal. They could elect him president.
The words are meaningless, guys. But the intention, for both Donald Trump and the man who will shoot you, is to exert power through violence.
Imagine Pa, the man who made tough decisions, but who always consulted Ma, who built the cabin in the big woods and the one on the prairie with his own bare hands, who walked east for days in his worn down old boots so that he could find work in the fields after the grasshoppers ate everything, who believed that the Native Americans on the prairie had a right to their own land, and that they could all live and trade together, who traded work with all his neighbors, and who looked out for them, because he knew they wouldn’t make it without each other, imagine Pa strutting into the middle of Independence, telling everyone he could grab women by the pussy if he wanted to.
It’s embarrassing to imagine it. But Pa would never say it. The only inherent danger in language is intention. Either your intention is to do harm, or you’re just being lazy or stupid.
Pa would never have said something like that, even as he was out alone on the prairie, doing whatever it was he did out there, because he never intended to do harm, and he wasn’t lazy or stupid. He used reason to sort out his problems, and that made him stronger.
I don’t write these memos to give you advice or to tell you what to do. These are informative, not persuasive. But the truth is, even if I wanted to give you advice on this, I just don’t know what it would be. Cussing is fine, but you need to understand your intentions. Don’t be stupid. Don’t be lazy. Be very careful around careless people. Take care of each other. I don’t know.
I wonder what’s happened in the time since I wrote this. You’re both getting ready to make your own way into the world as you read this. I wonder how you’ll remember me as I am now, almost 40.
There’s so much work to do. I have deadlines, you know, and while the weather is still nice I’ll sit out in this plastic Adirondack chair in my own little prairie and work, and then I’ll go in and make you a nice little lunch. I’m no Pa. I cuss with some frequency, and I am often stupid and lazy, and the world is such these days that it’s difficult to always speak with intention, but I try. If I have an extra ten minutes, I’ll do puzzles with you guys or chase you around the house. I’ll go pee and hold my embarrassing penis. I’m sorry, Ruby. And then I’ll go back to work. And I’ll work and work and work, and I’ll keep working until you open this memo when you’re 18 and 20, and then I’ll keep working. This work is suddenly very important.
Maybe as you read this, you’ll remember your dad sitting out in the back yard with his computer, or standing at the stove, or chasing you around the house, or doing puzzles. Maybe if you think really hard, you’ll remember me lying on your floor in the dark, listening to you breathe as you drifted off to sleep.
This is how the world should be. This is what we want.
Jack Johnson, THE guy who takes it easy.
In Re: Thongs
When I was a kid, we called flip-flops “thongs.” Flip-flops are shoes without any top. They typically have a series of straps – one that crosses over the top of the foot, from the inside sole to the outside. Another strap, attached and perpendicular to the first one, attaches to the sole between the big toe and the second toe.
I’ve worn them a lot in my life, even though I find them somewhat inappropriate. I’m very complicated, Ruby. These are the kinds of contradictions in us that will never allow robots to feel love.
Anyway, a thong currently refers to underpants that similarly use a system of straps. It’s one strap, really, that connects the front to the back. This strap goes between one’s legs and gets buried deep inside one’s buttcheeks.
I’ve never tried on a thong, but I’ve been told that they are “surprisingly comfortable.” It is surprising. Flip-flops are also surprisingly comfortable, despite their lack of support.
As of this writing, thongs are primarily – but not exclusively – used by women who want to avoid something called “panty lines,” which are exactly what they sound like. Sometimes men’s thongs are called “banana hammocks.” My sense is that men who wear banana hammocks generally work in the adult entertainment industry, or are Germans on vacation.
I started calling thongs (the shoe) “flip-flops” when I was in college. I met people who called them that, and I learned about the other type of thong, and I made the change. There was a time when I considered wearing only flip-flops, all year long, for every occasion. It was an aesthetic choice. I wanted to be seen as the guy who took it easy. There were a couple of problems with this, though. One, a lot of people in Lawrence, Kansas, exclusively wore flip-flops, all year, for every occasion. I wouldn’t be seen as the guy who took it easy, I’d just be lumped in with the dipshits.
Two, there was this singer named Jack Johnson, who was a handsome surfer and who sang sleepy little pop songs that sounded like they were recorded on a beach at night around a cozy bonfire. In any case, Jack Johnson was THE guy who took it easy, and he didn’t wear any shoes at all. None. I’m not kidding.
As it turns out, I was probably lumped in with the dipshits no matter what flip-flop choice I made. I think I might be going through a similar thing now.
I’m on a bus for the city. It’s early but not early enough to make me a respectable working adult. It’s autumn. You just learned that concept. Autumn. You’re going to have a little sister in a couple months. Your mother is tired and worried. Your mother said yesterday that if I disappeared I’d disappear alone. It seemed odd, like she’d thought about it. We were having a discussion. I’m not saying she wants me to disappear – I know she doesn’t. But it feels like she is expecting it, somehow.
Your mother says a lot of things. Last week she said “the sweetest Uyghur.” I don’t really know what she was talking about – I stopped listening after she said “the sweetest Uyghur.” She was saying something about China. Uyghur is pronounced “Weeger,” and refers to a people who live in China, and who are being squeezed by the government over there. It’s a complicated situation.
I’m starting a band called “The Sweetest Uyghur.”
The first single will be a cover of Lionel Richie’s “Say You, Say Me.”
I don’t think your mother was ever lumped in with the dipshits. I bet you won’t be, either. Is this good? I don’t know. I sort of like the dipshits.
I think it would be easy to disappear. I’m not going to disappear. You don’t have to worry about that. I could try to disappear, but it wouldn’t work. I’d have to take you and your mother with me, and your new sister and Beatrice, the dog. And that is the definition of failing to disappear. I’d also need to keep in touch with all our friends and family. Fail!
Your mother likely could have chosen any number of Jack Johnson types. She’s a beautiful woman. And very smart. Really, she has a lot going for her. But she ended up with me. Jack Johnson has a lot going for him, too. He’s the guy who takes it easy, you know? But he probably has loads of money, too, and I bet he can talk to a woman and make her feel some kind of magic for a little while. His music is…you know? It’s fine.
I might not be the dipshit I’m making myself out to be. But I’m no Jack Johnson. I’m sorry for that. Maybe your life would have been easier if I was.
Maybe no matter what you have the important thing is to have it. That’s what I keep telling your mother, anyway. I might decide tomorrow to throw away all of my proper shoes and wear only flip-flops every day of the year, for every occasion. I’ll get lumped in with the dipshits. But I’ll be your dipshit and you and your mother will have me every single day.
And on that beach, when the sun sinks below the ocean, and Jack Johnson and his bare feet and his guitar become gold and blue silhouettes against the light of that magic bonfire, and his lonesome strumming goes quiet, where do you think he goes?
Jack Johnson just disappears. 
I’d like to start a band called Germans on Vacation.
The first single will be called “Banana Hammock.” If you are reading this memo in a mansion on an island somewhere, then good news! My band made it. I’m sorry for any pain my Germans on Vacation
fame has caused you. 
I’m sorry for any pain that the success of The Sweetest Uyghur has brought you. My intentions were good. I just wanted to rock. 
“Fail!” is this shitty little thing that people are saying now, although it’s getting kind of old. It’s used as a noun, instead of a verb. “Your Cosby sweater is a total fail!” I think this usage will go away in the near term. Coincidentally, I find the usage antagonistic. It’s like calling someone stupid. "Look at your stupid sweater, stupid." It’s rude. If my friend has a bad Cosby sweater, I’d rather say something like, “That sweater’s a real humdinger
.” “Humdinger” can mean many things. It could be negative, or it could be positive. It could also just imply my utter consternation at the style of the sweater.
In re: A Pant
I’m not sure about the explicit rule, and I’m not going to look it up, because that would require more key strokes
than I’m prepared to put into this, but, generally speaking, in English, when we refer to an article of clothing that we wear from the waist down, and that has individual holes – one for each leg – we call them pants,
in the plural.
If the leg holes are short, we call them shorts,
also in the plural. We say a pair of pants,
or a pair of shorts.
It’s a tricky one, because we are referring to a single item, not a pair. I don’t know why we refer to them in the plural. Maybe back when we developed the rule, not everyone could afford to buy two leg holes at once. You’d go to the guy who made clothes and say, “I need a new pant.” He’d say, “Why not get a pair?” You’d say, “In this economy?!”
We also generally refer to shoes in the plural. But guess what: shoes literally come in pairs. You rarely ever buy a single shoe. And we don’t call a shirt a pair of shirts,
even though they usually come with two armholes.
I know. Baffling. In any case, and again, I don’t know why we refer to these single items in the plural. But we do.
But get this: lately – say, within the last ten to fifty years
– some people have begun saying a pant
(sing.), but only in certain situations, and only certain types of people.
Imagine someone who’s caught a bit of a fashion bug is offering advice to someone who needs fashion advice. He or she will say, for example, “I love that shirt, but it would pair better with a slender pant.” Singular.
I once shot a bottle rocket into one of my leg holes and exploded my pants off. I was wearing a blue, mid-thigh short (sing.) A bottle rocket is this little thing that looks like a firecracker on the end of a thin stick. It has a fuse that you light on fire that sizzles for a few seconds and leads up into the firecracker. Once the sizzle goes into the firecracker, the whole thing shoots up into the sky and explodes.
This particular one didn’t shoot into the sky. It shot into my pants. Bottle rockets were made illegal, except in Missouri, where people would rather blow their nuts off than, well...they’d just rather blow their nuts off, I guess.
Here’s something: people with a fashion bug have also begun referring to shoes in the singular. “That type of trouser needs a shoe with a slight heel.”
What an amazing world!
I want you to know that I’m not judging anyone for using the singular of pants, shorts,
I just think it’s stupid. It’s an affectation, which is something that people do that is, generally, inauthentic and designed to impress. It’s not real.
But that doesn’t mean it’s bad. That I think it’s stupid doesn’t really mean anything, either.
In fact, once I went into a store and told the guy behind the counter that I was “looking for a boot with a round toe.
” I suppose you could say I’d caught the fashion bug back then. The guy knew exactly what I was talking about. He sold me a pair of boots, even though I had only said I was looking for one boot. He and I both had the bug.
I’m on a train bound for the City right now. The Hudson is on my right. On the left there are two-story houses with bars on the windows and dirty vinyl siding and dirty little pink plastic bicycles and tricycles lying along their sidewalks. There’s endless chain link fencing stuffed with endless garbage. You’re back upstate with your mother, who is pregnant with your little sister. You’re probably napping right now. You nap well, although you fight it at first almost every day. I think there will be a day when you won’t fight naps, but it could be decades from now. I’m not really a napper, myself. Not yet. Maybe someday.
The word pants
has no inherent meaning, you know? It’s a sound we make that, in English, we have all agreed refers to these things we wear from the waist down that have two leg holes. I’m the guy at the party who is amazed by this stuff, who probably nobody wants to get stuck talking to.
But here you are, sweetheart. Stuck with me.
There might be inherent meaning somewhere in the universe, but mostly all meaning comes from what we create ourselves.
We created this situation with pants. We created language. We created roads and lamps and agriculture. We created every little goddamned thing that means anything to us. We made everything mean something and we are absorbed by meaning and we are destroyed by it.
So I probably am judging people who use the singular of pants. But I also love that it’s an option. Some of your mother and my best friends use it, although mostly just to be funny. It’s just an affectation. It’s not real.
You want real? I literally almost exploded my nuts off with a bottle rocket. That’s as real as it gets. Ask anyone from Missouri
Anyway, I’d love you no matter how you used pants, shorts, shoes
, or foods
, or any word.
Think: tonight, after you read this memo
, imagine you and me go to a party. Thirty-four years ago I got off this train and went about my business and eventually came back past the fences filled with trash and the little pink bicycles lying on the lawns and now we’re at a party. We’re standing over by the chips (do they still have chips? I hope to God they do), and you’re totally stuck with me and I’m talking about inherent meaning and about how keystrokes used to refer to keyboards and typing and how I still can’t figure out the latest technology and you’re rolling your eyes at me but, Jesus Christ, you’re stuck with me.
I shut up for a second. We’re quiet. You take a little drink. You’re so tall and beautiful and probably things have happened in your life. You lean in and say, “Dad, you should really find a pant without pleats.”
I’ll love it so much.
“Keystrokes” generally refer to the amount of times I have to press my fingers against the keys on my keyboard. A keyboard is what we use to enter words into machines. It is rather labor intensive and can be hard on the hands, if one enters a lot of words into a machine. Keyboards have been around for a long time. I even took a typing class in high school. That said, lately, because of technology, “keystrokes” can now loosely refer to the amount of shit you have to look up on the Internet. What used to be intensive research – manual labor, really – is now accomplished with mere keystrokes. I sound like an old man. 
In other words, I really have no idea when this all started. Again, keystrokes. 
Obviously, meaning is only meaning because we are here for it to mean something. 
I’ll talk more about Missouri in the memo about hardcopy pornography. I’ll also talk more about the bottle rocket in my pants. 
Assuming you’re 36 when you read this – my age now as I write this.
There’s nothing wrong with going topless on a beach when you’re older. Just know that some men like looking at boobs and whatnot – for whatever reason – and when you go topless, it’s likely that they will stop listening to what you have to say so they can focus on your toplessness.
This compulsion is not because we’re simple or stupid. I don’t know what it’s all about, I just know that it happens.
Some men will think that your going topless is a form of peacocking for them and them alone, but don't let that stop you. If you want to do it and it's safe to do it, the ball is in your court.
Maybe 60 thousand years ago some man was born with a real love of boobs – like he really felt it, you know? And he passed that love down to his sons. And because his sons were born with a preternatural love of the female form – and that love was tied to sexual impulses – they were more productive than their pals who just wanted to stay home and, I don't know, watch baseball. Ergo – some men really love to look at boobs.
Keep in mind that this is an unsubstantiated hypothesis and very real oversimplification. This doesn't explain why some men still love watching baseball. Some men love both - ogling boobs and watching baseball. It's a big world. There's room for everyone.
This could be a sensitive topic. But it's a topic, and you need to learn about topics, sensitive or not. Right now you and I are sitting in the car in Brooklyn, waiting for your mother to get groceries. It's raining. You're clapping your hands and singing "Water! Water! Bus! Mama!"
These are the topics you're into now. I love you so terribly. Men are just awful.
How else to explain it, except by natural selection? These things you will have are simply sacs of fat and flesh. Obviously, they have a higher literal and metaphorical meaning (feeding the world, etc), but do men on the beach think, That woman is topless, and her breasts nourish children and, metaphorically, feed the world. I should really stare at them!
No. They just stare at them, often with their tongues hanging out of their mouths, panting like cartoon animals.
Anyway, go topless or don’t. I advise caution in all things. This, too. I love you no matter what.
Don’t talk too loudly in public places. It’s annoying. It makes you look like you think you’re the only person in the world. Or else it makes you look like you’re begging for attention. Either way you look like an asshole.
When I was your age I went back to Kansas for my ten-year high school reunion. I had recently lost a ton of weight and my marriage was ending and I was feeling pretty terrific. Light and free. When people felt the way I felt in the year 2000, they played a song called Who Let the Dogs Out? by the Baha Men (Featuring a young rapper by the name of Pitbull). But this was 2005 and that song was retarded.
Things go in and out of fashion very, very quickly. Particularly things that are instantly funny or trivial or novel and nothing else. The poet William Stafford, who lived in Hutchinson as a child, like me, once said that a poem means one thing, and one thing more. In other words, to resound, something must be both trivial or novel or engaging or entertaining or something – one thing – and also reflective of some greater truth or good – one thing more.
When the novelty of the song, Who Let the Dogs Out? wore off, we all thought, What the fuck are you talking about? Who let what dogs out? There was no greater truth and the song created no greater good. Some would disagree, and that’s fine. There can be multiple truths. I’m sure the Baha Men (and rapper Pitbull) think the song added greatly to the national discourse. Why not let them believe it? We all die someday.
Anyway. I was in Kansas for my high school reunion. My high school girlfriend, E, was going to be there. We were both married (not much longer for me, though, praise Jesus) so nothing was going to happen. But when you go to these things – reunions – you want those people from your past to regret letting you go. You want them to look at you and say, Wow! Who let the dogs out!? Even if it was only a relationship from high school. It’s pretty stupid, but your ten-year reunion is coming up, I’m guessing you know exactly what I mean.
The big reunion party was at a place called The Highlands, a country club which used to be called Paganica (pronounced Pag-a-neek-a) and which almost everyone still called Paganica. We had been members out there when I was a kid. There was a golf course and a chair attached to the wall that you could ride up the stairs into the dining room. I don’t remember ever walking up those stairs. Why would you when you could just sit and let the chair do the work for you?
These are the choices I made, looking back, that may have contributed to my being a husky child.
Anyway. I was getting ready for my high school reunion. I was in my old bedroom in the basement, where E and I had enjoyed our shared pastime so many times in high school, and I was drinking beer from a giant bottle, getting really excited about riding that chair up the stairs. Gramma Sue came down into the basement and saw that I was wearing a wrinkled shirt. Gramma Sue doesn’t like wrinkled shirts, and told me to iron it. I said I didn’t think it was a big deal. She disagreed. She told me to take the shirt off and she would iron it. I said thanks, but really, it’s not that big of a deal. And then she said something interesting. She said that when you go to a party with a wrinkled shirt, it’s like saying, “Hi everyone! Go fuck yourselves.” Then she flipped me off, which is a hand signal that means, roughly, “go fuck yourself,” or, simply, “fuck you.” Is it possible that wearing a wrinkled shirt to a party is the same as flipping off everyone at the party?
Sure it’s possible that only assholes wear wrinkled shirts.
People hang out on the street outside our apartment in the East Village at all hours of the night. They get really drunk and they scream and they sing and they talk so loudly. They get in their cars at 4 a.m. and turn their music up so everyone on the block can hear it. What a bunch of assholes. I would guess that a thousand people or more live on our block. So the assholes down on the street have made a personal decision that negatively affects over a thousand people.
Maybe they think their singing on the street is worth waking up a thousand people. Maybe they’ve forgotten that they aren’t the only people on Earth. Pretty soon you’ll be here and your mother and I will want to protect you and we’ll want you to be able to sleep through the night without some idiot outside waking you. It’s a small indignity – you’ll certainly survive it. But it’s something to think about as you live your own life.
I’ve done terrible things. I’ve made so many people feel terrible. One time two guys threw their skateboards at my car and chased me down the street as I drove away. They flipped me off, in fact, just like your Gramma Sue did that night before my high school reunion. I made them so angry. I’ve made people cry. Probably lots of people. Probably lots of people I didn’t even know. One time I hit my neighbor in the face with a baseball. I didn’t do it on purpose, and I was only 10 or so, but still. What an asshole move.
I’m a terrible person. And so is your mother. And so are you. You will make people cry, and you will hurt people, and you will be guilty of causing pain. I’m sorry. Mostly you won’t mean to. You might show up at a party with a wrinkled shirt, or you might sing on the street, forgetting that there are small babies trying to sleep in the buildings around you.
The Golden Rule is something like Do unto others what you want done to you. But that’s not exactly right. What if you want to get punched in the face all the time? Does that mean you should go around punching people in the face? Probably not. The revised rule should be something like Don’t do unto others what you don’t want done to you. In other words, do no harm. You’ll find this impossible, but just try. Try to do no harm.
Try not to be an asshole.
 Assuming you’re 28 when you read this.
 Not my marriage to your mother, obviously. I didn’t meet her for a couple more years.
 I’ll discuss Pitbull in another memo.
 Don’t use the word “retarded” in this context. Do as I say, not as I do.
 People in Hutchinson might say they still called it Paganica because they “don’t much like change.” That’s not true. They love change. When the mall opened in the 1980’s they immediately abandoned our quaint, bustling downtown area. The businesses there were devastated. Most of them immediately died. The people there love change. But even more than that they love sounding folksy, so they say things like, “We don’t much care for change around here.” They still called it Paganica because Paganica is more fun to say than The Highlands. Coincidentally, your great-grandparents on Grandma Sue’s side lived out the ends of their lives at The Highlands, a.k.a. Paganica.
Don't be an asshole, Ruby.
Going to sleep is something you’ll do a lot of. Practically every day. Except when you go backpacking across Europe – assuming you’ll be lucky enough to get to do that. I wasn’t. By the time my friends went traipsing across the Continent my family was poor and I had to paint houses, which was all fine and good. I wasn’t jealous of my friends or anything. They probably all caught some VD, which they deserved.
I’ll discuss VD’s another time.
The point is that we all sleep a lot – some more than others, which brings up an even bigger point. If you learn nothing else from this memo, learn that there is a huge range of normal in our species. Normal is a broad spectrum in humans. If you’re concerned that you’re not normal, you are. Consider the size of the universe and you’ll feel fine.
Some people sleep ten or even twelve hours a day, while others sleep 4 or possibly even 2 hours. The extremes are extreme, of course, but it’s a range and it happens. In other words, you’re fine. Probably.
When I was your age
, I listened to Simon and Garfunkel every night as I went to sleep.
Simon and Garfunkel was a popular musical duo in the 1960’s, which was a tumultuous time in America. We went from being modern to being postmodern, which is all a bunch of crap. Postmodernism is a word that some people made up to prove how much more special they were than their parents. You’ll probably come up with something similar. But nothing really changed in the 1960’s. Again, I’m talking about the broad spectrum here. Everyone back then wanted to have sex with everyone else. But that has always been true. Always. For a million years. But in the 1960’s, special white Americans started wanting to have sex with everyone all over the world – Asians and Latin Americans and Africans. Everyone. Except some Pacific Islanders, who hadn’t yet learned to honor their folk traditions by writing about them in English.
By the way, it’s normal to want to have sex with someone. Particularly once you’re happily married.
I wasn’t alive in the 1960’s, but I still wanted to have sex with women from other cultures. And look! You’re mother is Iranian, so it all worked out. You have Simon and Garfunkel to thank for that.
Anyway. I listened to their album every night when I was twelve. I had it on tape. I’ll discuss tapes another time. I would rewind the song Bridge Over Troubled Water over and over and over. Certain scary, sad things were happening in my house back then – all of which, it turns out, are unfortunately within that broad spectrum of normal – and that song, Bridge Over Troubled Water, comforted me as I went to sleep.
Art Garfunkel sings that song, but for some reason I thought Murphy Brown sang it.
Murphy Brown was the title character of a sitcom that ran from 1988 until 1998. Murphy Brown, played by Candace Bergen, was a middle-aged recovering alcoholic TV journalist who returned to her job after a stay at the Betty Ford clinic only to find that her knew producer was a brainy wiz-kid half her age. Poor Miles. He never stood a chance.
I was in love with Murphy Brown. And because I thought she sang Bridge Over Troubled Water, every night as I drifted off to sleep, I imagined she was singing it to me.
I was a fat, although very tan, 12 year old, and I was in love with a middle-aged recovering alcoholic. For what it’s worth, Candace Bergen was one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood in her day, although she was never physically my type. I prefer darker women from other cultures, like Iran or Mexico, because I am a postmodernist.
Anyway. Here’s the thing about going to sleep: it’s usually dark and silent, and you’re usually alone. And if you can’t sleep right away you’re left to think about your life, your day, even if you’re only 12. And if your life is sad and scary just then, as sometimes it will be (I’m so sorry), then going to sleep will also feel sad and scary and lonesome. I know that for certain, because when I was a fat, albeit tan, 12 year old I felt sad and scared but not lonesome because I had Murphy Brown.
Kansas, where I grew up, is so dark at night. It’s hard to describe except to say it’s a dark that you can’t even imagine, not even when you’re in it. There’s no light but there are stars. I’d stare out my window at night, into that terrible darkness, up at the sky, and as Murphy Brown sang to me, I’d quietly slip away into the universe.
I hope you don’t have to do that. I hope I can send you back packing through Europe. I hope I can show you the amazing darkness of Kansas. I hope you invent a word that makes you more special than me. I hope you know that when you feel scared and sad, I’ll be there to sing you to sleep. 
Assuming you’re twelve as you read this
I call them “hairdos,” as in, I’m afraid I can’t dish right now, I’m off to get my hair done. I say it this way to reflect the production that goes into getting my hair done. It’s a constant struggle, as you’ll learn. I’m not sure if it’s worse being a girl or being a boy. Most girls I know will swear that it’s more difficult for them. That’s possible. But most girls I know won’t stop until everyone agrees that their lives are much more difficult than my silly, simple life as a boy. I can’t say whether or not that’s true for certain because I’m a critical thinker. What I can say for certain is that my hairdos have been a struggle.
I generally don’t get the usual barber cut, and I suppose that’s why I’ve had such a hard time. Don’t get me wrong, getting your hair done can be a real pleasure. Sometimes they give you a scalp massage. And I like the way it feels when they scrape the little hairs off the back of my neck – something you won’t get to enjoy, I don’t think.
Lately I’ve been getting what my friends call a “lesbian hairdo.” It’s short on the sides and long on top. It’s also called a “high and tight.” There was a singer named Lisa Stansfield when I was younger who was a pioneer in this style of hairdo.
My hairstyle will change at some point – I’m certain – and I’ll struggle with it.
When I was your age (assuming you’re 8 when you read this), I was fat and had a flat top. I looked like a marine who’d been assigned to a desk and had let himself go. Your grandmother put me on a diet – she made me eat nothing but Lean Cuisines, which were low-calorie frozen dinners for middle-aged suburban women. When I failed to lose weight from that, she made me grow my hair out and get a tan. Gramma Sue always says that tan fat is better than pale fat. And you know what? She’s right.
As of this writing, I get my hair done by a guy named Tom. He’s Hmong, which is pronounced MUNG. The Hmong are an Asian people who came from the mountains around Cambodia and Vietnam and Laos – Southeast Asia, in other words. They were persecuted by the Lao government in the 1970’s – hunted, really – and so they fled their native land. Many, like Tom and his family, came to the United States, where Tom learned to give really great lesbian hairdos.
When I lived in Minnesota, a girl named Allie did my hair. She was really cute and she laughed at all my jokes, but she gave terrible hairdos. I went to her for over five years.
Your mother loves shoes, but she’s not in love
You may ask yourself, when you’re 13 or so, What is love?
You may also read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,
which is a book that people my age read when they were teenagers that made them feel smart. Perhaps there’s another book that will cleverly address philosophical matters in a way that teens find approachable in your time. If not, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
was written by Robert M. Pirsig. You can probably find it in an online library, and read it on your electronic book device.
Speaking of electronic devices, Steve Jobs died yesterday. That’s big news, although you won’t know it when you come around. Your mother is almost 33 weeks pregnant with you. That means that sometime in the next 7 or so weeks, you’ll be born. Could be today for all I know. Could be ten weeks. If Michio Kaku
is right, it could be in a billion years and on the planet Edelstein
. Take that, Robert M. Pirsig.
I’m sitting in the car again. There’s a school bus parked beside me, and kids from the school next door to our apartment are boarding. They are going wild. The kids on the street are throwing things at the side of the bus saying things like, “Suck my dick!” to the kids who are on the bus. And they’re threatening the people in the cars who are stuck behind the bus, and who are honking. “Shut the fuck up, motherfucker! I’m gonna fuck you up!” These kids are probably 13 years old. They’re bouncing around the street, pulling up plants from the planters and throwing bottles and kicking trash. They have a long road ahead of them.
Do you think when they’re home alone they wonder, What is love?
I bet they do. They’re just kids.
Anyway, I’m glad your mother isn’t in love
with shoes, and that she only loves them.
I saw her buy an $800 pair of shoes once. We were first dating – it was her first trip to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I was living at the time. I was shocked but also impressed. I was living in a 200 square foot apartment with a Murphy bed. A Murphy bed is a bed that folds up into the wall when you’re not using it, so that the bed doesn’t take up your whole apartment, like it did in my apartment.
Why did your mother decide to date a guy who lived in a 200 square foot apartment in Minneapolis when she was capable of buying an $800 pair of shoes, you might ask. I’ve asked myself that same question.
Physics of the Impossible
, my dear.
I haven’t seen her buy shoes that expensive since, but maybe by the time you read this she’ll have bought a pair of shoes for $1,000. Maybe a she’ll have bought a pair for $10,000. If so, it’s likely that she’s come unhinged and we’ll be moving into an apartment with a Murphy bed in the near term.
When I moved into that apartment, I hoped that my friends would start calling me “Dr. Murphy” because of my success with the ladies. It didn’t happen.
Anyway. I’ve gotten off track. The point is that some people wear comfortable shoes exclusively, while others only wear uncomfortable shoes that they think are attractive. Most people divide their time between the two – again there’s a broad range of normal. In any case, like anything, you might want to consider the context.
If the context is that you are going for a run, then you’ll want to wear running shoes. If you are going to a formal affair, like a wedding, most likely you’ll wear more attractive, uncomfortable shoes. If you work at a pizza place, like I did when I was your age
, you’ll want to wear old tennis shoes.
Some people like to go against context with their shoes to make a statement. For example, some people choose to get married on the beach without any shoes on at all. The statement they are trying to make is something like this: We’re so in love that shoes aren’t important at all!
It’s an odd thing, though, because who cares?
And I guess that’s my point about shoes. I’m pretty picky. Lately I’ve been buying shoes about a half size too small because they were on sale – my last two pairs, in fact. This brings me terrible anxiety because I’m afraid my cheapness will give me bunions, which I hate. I name all of my shoes. I have a pair that are very spongy, which I call my Lil’ Hugs,
because when I put them on it’s like they’re giving my feet little hugs. I have a pair I call my ninja shoes,
because they look like the kind of shoes a ninja would wear. But who cares? None of that is important at all.
It’s just not important.
If you want to wear expensive, uncomfortable, beautiful shoes all the time (and you can afford to), then do it. If you want to wear running shoes to everything, that’s fine, too. If you want to get married barefoot, I’m all for that. None of it really matters, so long as you’re happy. And if shoes are all you have to worry about, you’re a lucky girl.
I will say this: there are these shoes out now that look like feet – each toe gets its own little sleeve. They’re like gloves for feet. I hope to god these “shoes” aren’t around when you read this. They are an aberration. 
Michio Kaku is a physicist who writes popular books about physics. People my age read them to feel smart. 
There is no planet Edelstein as of this writing. 
This is the title of the last Michio Kaku book I read. It’s also what I like to say when I can’t explain something. 
Assuming you’re 15 when you read this.
*My senior pictures. Peacocking.
There are these birds called peafowl, that most people just call peacocks. This isn’t totally correct – the peacock refers to the male only. The female is the peahen and the little babies are peachicks. The peacock – again, the male – is known for its extravagant, eye-spotted tail plumage, which is hard to describe in words. It’s bright and opalescent and brilliant and, well, extravagant. When the peacock sees a peahen with which it would like to have intercourse
, it stands tall and spreads its extravagant plumage in an effort to attract the female.
“Peacocking” is the human version of this. It’s when a human man puts on airs and makes some extravagant attempt to persuade a woman (or another man) to have intercourse with him.
The Iranians – your people – are famous for their peacocking. It’s possible they invented it.
One of your uncles told me that Iranians also invented backgammon, math, etiquette, and that they were the first in flight. If I had been a woman, your uncle telling me that would have been a good example of peacocking.
Peacocking can also mean wearing a lot of cologne, or a flashy or stylish suit, or driving around in a brightly colored or large or expensive car, or showing off a lot of chest hair. This is the Iranian way.
When I was your age, assuming you’re 20 when you read this, my style of peacocking was slightly subtler. I took guitar lessons, listened to the Indigo Girls
, and wrote a lot of poetry. I should say that peacocking is almost never successful, as you might have already concluded. Not for anyone. I don’t know why women decide to have intercourse with men, but it’s generally not because we listen to the Indigo Girls (although maybe?).
Men/boys your age wake up peacocking (so to speak) – our whole lives are dedicated to trying to persuade women to have intercourse with us. When a boy tells you about camping in Zion, that’s peacocking. When a boy brings you flowers, that’s peacocking. When a boy likes dogs, that’s peacocking.
That’s all fine.
Peafowl behave this way because their species depends on it. It’s unconscious. They don’t think to themselves, “If I display my plumage, perhaps that peahen would like to have intercourse with me.” Human’s peacocking is similarly unconscious. If men didn’t have some innate urge to have intercourse with women, there would be no offspring. In other words, our peacocking isn’t malicious. We’re not trying to own or destroy you. We’re trying to impress you.
This isn’t always the case, of course, and you should always keep that in mind. 
I’m not sure that sex between two birds is called intercourse. I’m taking some creative license here because I think it’s funny to say when two birds have intercourse.
That’s the power of personification, which is sort of the point of this memo. 
The Indigo Girls were a folk/rock music duo consisting of two women. They were popular starting in the late 1980’s, and are now, in 2011 – the year you will be born – are self-releasing albums. Read more about them in the memo titled “College Lesbianism.”