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.