The 20-year itch
The late Kurt Vonnegut was once a graduate student in anthropology. By all accounts (i.e., his professors), he was not in his natural element, although it turned out they were wrong. It turned out he’d managed to learn a thing or two about people.
Being a fan of Mr. Vonnegut, and reading between the lines a little (although, to be fair, you can do this by just reading the actual lines), he seemed to believe that one of humanity’s most persistent traits was that we were all just so, so lonely.
Not knowing much about anthropology, but having written my own share of sentences for a while now, I see some merit in Mr. Vonnegut’s thesis. And I can’t help wondering if this has only gotten worse, even though it’s now possible to have an online conversation with someone you attended the third grade with.
The loneliness I see is more a sense of isolation in a complex universe. I hear from readers fairly often who seem to take pleasure in knowing that whatever dumb thing I’ve happened to do, they’ve also done it.
Some not-so-dumb stuff, also. People like to know they’re not alone, apparently, when it comes to certain things.
And a fair number of people just like to make fun of me. That’s OK.
Unfortunately, some of this connectedness has to do with sadness. It’s been 10 years since my family and I discovered that my father was very sick, although he’d been heading in that direction for a while.
It was the spring of 2003 that we discovered that he had small-cell lung cancer, a disease with a mortality rate so close to 100 percent that hope is an illusion you only talk about in groups. You don’t really think it. My father died eight months later.
I miss him still, and some of you miss your fathers. And mothers, and brothers, and so on, and I hear from you occasionally, after all these years. It’s a kindness, really, this sort of sharing in muted grief.
There are other things, too, less certain than death but troubling, and while there’s no sadness in this family at the moment, I feel, in the spirit of honesty and less loneliness, that I should mention something I’ve brought up before.
I am the parent of a disabled child.
He is an adult child, now, and a beautiful one. He brings me laughter and joy, and the world seems to like him a little, as he’s had it better than many.
He does, too. He’s not in a wheelchair, or bound to a bed, or stuck in an institution with professional caretakers. He lives at home, he goes to school, he has friends, he surrounds himself with an aura of good-naturedness that attracts all sorts of kindness.
But he’s been dealt a bad hand, and he knows it. And some of you know what I’m talking about.
This isn’t a column about sadness, though, just practical matters. With parents who are busy enough and for the most part self-employed, he tends to live in a cocoon filled with footsteps from the other room. Somebody is usually always here, or nearby.
In 1993, when my son was 3 and my daughter 8, they were parceled out among good friends, and my wife and I went to Victoria on Vancouver Island to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary over a long weekend.
It was a glorious trip, one we remember fondly and, lately, for a particular reason: It was the last time we were alone together for more than 24 hours.
Twenty years, if you can imagine. It just works out that way.
Again, there are other reasons we haven’t managed to find a couple of days to rekindle a long marriage away from parental and occupational responsibilities, but it was about time.
So a couple of weeks ago, after months of anticipation, my wife and I headed roughly the same distance away from home, in the opposite direction, and spent the weekend in Portland together.
I’ve tried to describe to people from other parts of the country the difference between Seattle and Portland, because there is one, although mostly I just mention Powell’s Books.
As most of you know, Powell’s covers a fair amount of Portland, enough to have its own weather, which is mostly dusty. You cannot only get lost in Powell’s, you can learn a lot while you wander.
So we did Powell’s, and we did parks and the Portland Market. We relied entirely on public transportation, and returned to a swank hotel every night where we found things to talk about, if you can imagine.
It’s important, but then those of you in our situation know that already, as difficult as it is. Twenty years is too long, and won’t happen again, but for one spectacular weekend it did and we are better for it.
We returned home to a son who was nonchalant about our absence, neighbors who had watched out their windows like hawks, and a fair amount of pizza boxes, which is another way to learn about people, but again: This isn’t about sadness.
It’s about difficulties that many of us have just staying alive and with the ones we love, and about finding joy in time together, and about how dust is not really so bad, not when it covers all sorts of stories.
Some of them by Kurt Vonnegut, too, who knew all about what we were doing there, and why.