Next Time I’ll Do Better. Honest.

post office

Dear Will:

I think I just committed a federal crime. Pretty sure, anyway. Maybe. But if I admit it to you here, perhaps they’ll go easy on me at trial. (All the same, let’s keep this between us. Thanks, buddy.)

Here’s how it all went down: For Christmas I assembled a present for my daughter Bryn that included all of the items listed in this article from Outside magazine: 11 Things We Bring Backpacking that Cost Less Than $10. The list includes things like cotton balls soaked in Vaseline (DIY fire-starters), trash compactor bags (for water-proofing), and hot sauce packets filched from Taco Bell (for seasoning backcountry dinners). I packed all 11 items into a repurposed REI box and stuck it under the tree (except that I did upgrade her to Del Taco hot sauce because Taco Bell is gross and I love her). The only problem was that she arrived at our home with just a small carry-on and didn’t have room to schlep her trove of new gear on the airplane back to Utah.

Thus a few days after Christmas I was running around—you know, Getting Things Done—feeling all virtuous about my efficiency and productivity when I detoured over the post office to mail Bryn her loot. The clerk droned through the standard litany of questions: “Insurance?” “No thanks.” “Express Mail?” “Nope.” “Any liquids or flammables?” “Um. . . .” Of course I knew that Dr. Bronner’s Organic Liquid Soap would, technically speaking, probably qualify as a liquid. Plus I was pretty sure that the Bic lighter wrapped in Gorilla Tape was almost certainly flammable. But somehow in my zeal to Get Things Done I had not anticipated this inevitable question, and I panicked. “No,” I told him, and just like that my box was skim­ming down the chute, heading to the Beehive State, and I had taken the first step in my journey to, um, San Quentin.

In that very instant I could not believe what I had done. I wasn’t even sure why I had done it. As I drove away, I tried to rationalize my fib by noting that just about everything in that box had been shipped to my home, so it would be fiiiiiiine. Plus, clearly it’s not illegal to mail someone a 4.5 ounce bottle of Dr. Bronner’s because Amazon had mailed one to me. Right? I mean, right?

But the more I tried to rationalize, the dumber I felt. In a flash I had inadvertently revealed to myself my true character, and it was not a pleasant discovery. I like to think of myself as an honest, upright guy. Mendacity certainly does not align with my Christian values. But when faced with—what? inconvenience? an upcharge maybe? a little awkward embarrassment while dealing with a federal employee?—I opted for the easy lie instead. Even as I write this, knowing that the package arrived without dripping all over the conveyor belt or bursting spontaneously into flames, I am genuinely ashamed.

Of course, lying is all the rage these days. Everybody’s doing it. Maybe I’ve simply become . . . I don’t know . . . part of the Zeitgeist. Maybe. But when I witness the accumulating compost at the feet of our most public officials as they spew an endless stream of falsehoods and disinformation, the stench overwhelms me. Sure, compared to the sort of flimflam that gets tweeted and repeated these days, my postal prevarication really is nothing. But I can’t help but feel as though, in an unthinking moment, I stepped into something putrid and I can’t get it off of my shoe. Whatever that muck is, I want no part of it.

So to the United States Postal Service I say: I’m sorry. And to you and your friends and anyone else who believes that we would all be better off making a renewed commitment to integrity, I hereby make that same commitment. I really do believe in the virtue of veracity, in spite of what I might otherwise show in my weaker moments.

Next time I’m out Getting Things Done, I’ll do better. Honest.


To Be Honest, It Was Up To Him

Dear Will:

My grandparents lived in a large home on a quiet street in a small town in western Wyoming. It was the home my mother grew up in. It had a lovely front entryway which opened into a spacious living room where you would have found the first piano I ever played.

One of my sisters taught me a simple song on that piano (you might know it yourself). It’s played with the knuckles of one hand, only on the black keys. To play it requires no training and even less talent, but I remember how magical it was to produce music from that big, grand piano. I immediately told my mother than I wanted to learn to play.

To be clear, this was not a historic moment in the annals of music. Although I could more or less keep a beat, I wasn’t much of a prodigy. And like any normal, low-talent kid, I didn’t like practicing. I liked the idea of playing the piano, of course; I just didn’t care for the work required to play it well. Although I can still play to this day—and even have come to enjoy it—I never learned to read music well enough that I could ever perform for anyone but myself. Forty years removed from five brief years of lessons, I still play like an eighth-grader who needs to practice more.

Come to think of it, I have just such an eighth-grader right here in my own home. Although we don’t have an entryway and our living room is much more modest than my grandparents’, we do have a grand piano where Seth slumps each day to suffer his way through 15 or 20 minutes of unenthusiastic practice. Occasionally, he might even give off a subtle hint that he would really rather be doing something else. He might pause mid-song, for instance, and say, “I hate the piano” or “I HATE the piano!” or maybe even “I HATE THE PIANO!!” In fact, he goes so far as to set a timer lest he play even one minute beyond his prescribed time. All of which makes him a pretty normal eighth-grader, if you ask me.

Except for this:

On Saturday night my wife and I were sitting in the Carpenter Center during intermission of Musical Theatre West’s production of 42nd Street. (Highly recommended, by the way. Our friend Zach Hess plays one of the leads and he is fabulous.) As we waited for the show to resume (it was around 9:30 p.m.), my phone rang. It was Seth.

“I just realized that I forgot to do my practicing,” he said. “Do I have to?”

Excuse me? What sort of eighth-grader, left home alone on a Saturday night, calls his parents to admit that he has not gotten around to doing the thing he hates the most? A lesser 13-year-old—which is to say, just about any other 13-year-old on the planet—would simply have watched a little more TV and then slipped off to bed, knowing that no one would ever know whether he practiced or not. But not Seth. Throughout his 13+ years of life, he may not have become a concert pianist, but as you can see he has become something much more remarkable than that. Actually, I misstated that. He hasn’t become anything. Rather he has remained that which he has always been: a model of integrity and honor.

As for Saturday night, I was so impressed by his honesty that when he asked Do I have to? I told him it was up to him—at which point he promptly hung up and went back to watching TV. Proving, I suppose, that for all his integrity, he’s still a pretty normal kid.

Makes you kind of proud, to be honest.


Silent Conversations

Dear Will:

My dad is dying.

He has congestive heart failure and a mild form of leukemia (can leukemia be mild?). A damaged rotator cuff in his right shoulder makes his right arm useless. He has had both knees replaced and is recovering from a recently cracked patella. In other words, he can barely use his arms and legs. (Think of all you that have to depend on others to do for you if you can’t raise and lower your arms or bend your legs.) And a week or so ago, pneumonia sent him to the hospital where he “celebrated” his 86th birthday. Whoopee.

His doctor expects him to “recover” and go home, but it won’t surprise you to learn that my father is about out of patience with being a patient. “I wish I could get some dread disease and just be done with it,” he told me. “This business of falling apart bit by bit is nuts” (which shows that his mind is still sharp). Who can blame him for being fed up with life when the life that is left is so difficult to live?

He has put his affairs in order for the most part to simplify things for my mother when he goes. In fact, when we finally got him into the hospital and settled into his room, he insisted that I immediately retrieve his papers to make sure that there is no ambiguity: He does not want life support or resuscitation. If his body finally gives out, that will be that.

The only real remaining question is how effectively the rest of us will be able to entice him to stick around a bit longer. There is time, but who knows how much? Considering his condition, even if he returns home from the hospital, there may be little more that we can do together—and so we are all left to ponder the final conversations of our remaining time together in mortality. What do you say to each other when words become so precious and time so short?

Sometimes nothing. Before he went into the hospital, I went to visit him in his home. He felt so awful (his pneumonia had not yet been officially diagnosed) that mostly he lay silently in bed. But when I offered to leave him alone to rest, he asked me to stay put. “It’s a comfort to have you there,” he said. And so I sat in silence as we shared a moment in which words were not required.

Selfishly, I hope that once his illness is under control his spirits will lift and he’ll begin to fight for more time. I’d like him to see my daughter’s next ballet recital, to listen to my 10-year-old describe his team’s come-from-behind Little League victory, to discuss with my oldest the implications of what he’s learning in his Evolutionary Biology class at UCLA. I want to sit and watch the ballgame with him from time to time, to call him for advice as I so often do, to listen to him argue politics with my wife and tease my children. These are all things that have always brought him joy and that bring me joy to this day. And I’m not ready to give up that joy just yet.

But if, indeed, his time his short, I can tell you this: He is a good man. He has given 86 good years and created a legacy of integrity and honor. Come what may, he has made this world a better place.