For those of you who might think I just made up the “Richardisms” I’ve been posting, I offer for your perusal this piece I wrote in 1996, which I actually offered for publication to the New Yorker — they’re still thinking about it, but I digress. Anyway, it contains a few of my personal favorites. As I’m writing, I realize that it has survived transfer through at least 8 different hard-drives since its creation, which is impressive to me, as some kind of indication of its durability. You’ll tell me if it was worth saving.
Parents are supposed to be an inspiration to their children — with me it’s the other way around. My eldest daughter, then fourteen years’ old (going on forty) inspired this piece. I leave it to you to determine which of us is which.
I’m a great believer in being open minded, accepting of diversity and in the notion of “live and let live” — as long as this notion is practiced outside of my nuclear family. When my children are concerned, well, I feel compelled to attempt to expose any errors in their logic, and to give them the benefit of the wisdom I acquired from having made an astonishing number of mistakes in the course of my life. This has earned me a reputation for being a curmudgeon.
Truism though it be, as we grow older, we become our parents. Oh, it’s a shock to the system, the first time you hear yourself talking at one of your children, and flashback thirty years or so, to remember exactly how your mother or father put it — but there you are, sounding just like they did, often quoting verbatim. I have come to think of it as a form of respect, which I hope to enjoy posthumously.
Mark Twain once said, “When I was sixteen, I thought my old man was the dumbest person on the face of this earth — and by the time I was twenty-one, I was amazed at how much he had learned.” So true. I felt pretty much the same way about my father. I never knew he was such a philosopher, while I was under his tutelage. That revelation didn’t come until I had to pay my own way through life, and discovered the true meaning of his teachings. Then, it was my turn to be the “voice crying in the wilderness,” hoping one day to be heard and understood. Being a lawyer, I had an opinion on everything, and no fear to express same, particularly to a captive audience, such as my children were.
According to them, my pet rant was over food, particularly the need to consume whatever it was their mother made, rather than sniffing at her offerings and asking for a menu. I would remind them that in my parents’ generation, there was nothing to debate. “Your food was put on the table, you looked at it, sniffed it, and averred you’d ‘rather die than eat it.’ Then your mom gave you the standard lecture about it being ‘good for you,’ and ‘how hard your dad worked to put it there.’ You got three minutes to reflect on this — after which your old man advised you that if you didn’t start eating, you were going to get your face mushed in it, and then you were going to eat it anyway. Two more minutes for deliberation — then you either started eating; or, wearing, then eating.” What could be simpler? Of course, that was in the dark ages. My kids knew they had all kinds of rights that were sitting there in the Constitution of the United States of America, that the founding fathers didn’t know they had put there, but the Supreme Court told us were there anyway, inclusive of freedom of choice in dining. They also advised me that any motivational threats I might make in this regard would be at the risk of supervised visitation with them, after the children’s welfare authorities relieved me of custody.
Am I intimidated by all this legality? Not me, no sir. I tell them that, “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you have to eat proper food. It’s just natural to feel that way, but as you grow older, you learn that all the bad things for you, taste or feel good, or are fun doing, and the good ones are, well, just the opposite. A hamburger will always taste better than a dish of escarole — so you have to get the notion of eating healthy pounded into your head when you’re young, otherwise you’ll grow up having more fun than everybody else, and that just isn’t fair. More importantly, you don’t know what it takes to drag your butt into work every day, to earn the money that puts the visually and aromatically unappetizing ‘healthy food’ on the table each day. So you have to be reminded of this when you’re resisting eating dinner, every night — otherwise you won’t know what to say to your kids, when the time comes. Besides, if you’re forced to eat everything put before you as a child, like I was, one day you’ll wake up and actually like everything. Otherwise you’ll grow up like your aunt and eat like a bird.”
Which brings me to what it was that I started writing about in the beginning. I’m listening to my eldest daughter, telling me what’s wrong with my thinking on just about everything in life, and I am reminded of myself at her age, and how I must have tried my parents’ patience severely, particularly as I wasn’t near as cute and loveable as my daughter. Yet, my clone is telling me the same things I told my parents, thirty years ago — and she refuses to accept that we are kindred spirits. I tell her she enjoys argument so much, she should give some serious consideration to following me into the practice of law. “I have no interest in that — I’m going to be a famous actress,” she says. “Same thing,” I’m thinking to myself, “but why tell her, let her be pleasantly surprised when she tries her first case.”
What is it that I am trying to instill in her that evokes such passion and open disavowal of the common ancestry we share? I am attempting to persuade her that you can accept that someone whom you care about can feel differently about something than you do, without the disagreement being an argument. Says she, “Well, I have principles, and when someone challenges them, I stand up for them.” “Good for you,” say I, “but just because you have them, doesn’t mean someone else’s, which might be different, are invalid.” “See, you’re arguing with me,” says she. “No,” say I, “we’re just debating, which is technically an argument, but nobody gets hit.”
Now comes the part from which the title emerges. “Well,” says she, “you always have to have the last word, and you never admit to being wrong about anything — you’re pig-headed.” And so I am — but who’s going to hire a lawyer that has a loss for words or persistence? Not any of my clients, whether or not they were ever intending to pay my bill. So I tell her, “Now you raised three different notions in that last statement, all of which, naturally, I take issue with. Let’s discuss them one at a time.”
“As to my perceived need to have the last word, well, it’s just that, a perception. I never kept score, but like as not, you had the last say on something — I just can’t remember what it was, or when it happened. But that’s hardly the point — the issue is whether we’ve both said everything that the other should know about, so that we each understand the other’s position, and can make an informed decision about whether we agree with it or not, and if the latter, whether we can still accept the other person for being someone worth knowing, despite our disagreement. So if I’m the last person to speak on the matter, well, it just means it took me longer to get my point across than it took you.”
“Now, as to never admitting to being wrong, that’s equally untrue — I make mistakes every day, and admit them readily — you’re just not there when it happens.”
“Lastly, just because we disagree about something, doesn’t mean one of us is wrong. There’s many things in life that are issues of taste or personal preference, which, in my opinion, are not about being right or wrong. Oh, there’s lots of people who will tell you that the way you dress, or the books you read, or the way you vote, are matters of great importance to the Almighty, and there’s an absolute right or wrong about such endeavors, the consequences of erroneous judgement in which are rewarded by eternal damnation — but I’m not of that ilk. Since most of the things we ‘debate’ these days have to do with matters of preference, and we essentially disagree on which is preferable, it’s only natural that neither of us admits the other is ‘right,’ or that we are ‘wrong’ — those aren’t the proper terms for that. And as for being pig-headed, well, I prefer to think of myself as being highly principled and having a substantial degree of intellectual stamina.”
She thinks about this for a moment, and says, “See, there you go again, having to have the last word.” Me, I keep my mouth shut, and she never notices that she had the last word — but now, I’m keeping score.