Letters from Dad: Melissa

In the summer of 1992, my daughter Melissa had just graduated from high school and began working and playing at the Aspen Music festival, before her bassoon studies at Manhattan School of Music would begin in the fall. Dad (that’s me) is compelled to send her a few letters. You know, a little fatherly advice. Not that she really needed any. Here’s the first one (only very slightly edited from the original 20-year-old keystrokes)…

Dear Melissa,

Last Saturday we visited a new warehouse-size bookstore in Stamford and spent nearly $200. We also bought some books.

I saw there a number of mini-books offering advice to people. We sent you one even. But frankly, I don’t think there’s anyone in a better position to give you advice than me. Sitting down is always a great position from which to give advice.

So here’s the start of a long list of things I think you need to keep in mind as you move forward in LIFE.

First, Food. You must have food. As you have probably figured out by now, food grows in supermarkets. Great, big supermarkets. Now, of course, you can also find food in smaller, closet-sized markets, but this food was wrapped-up during the Eisenhower administration at the peak of the Great Cellophane Surplus. You can buy some of this food, but save it for emergency purposes after the Great Flood. Don’t ever eat it.

As for the big supermarkets, you can never go wrong there. Unless you buy garden implements. Gardening tools bought in supermarkets are highly inedible. Yes, they are food-related, in that they can be used to make food, but that doesn’t mean they are nutritious. Food is something that you should be able to chew, or at least swallow, without subsequently dying, or at least ralphing-up an ooky mess. Keep that in mind as you stroll down the aisles. The thought will probably come to you often.

Indeed, the challenge in the giant market of today is distinguishing between food and non-food. So you must read the labels. If you don’t recognize the ingredients, don’t buy the product. Of course, you might recognize “paper towels”, but that is not food either (except for very desperate college students).

Once upon a time, real food didn’t have labels. If you saw something in a bin that had a little dirt on it (I mean earth dirt, not dust or grit… you know the difference, I hope), it was probably edible, even if the shape or color was a little bizarre. There wouldn’t be a label or anything. If a farmer was standing right next to the bin, that was an even better clue that this was genuine food.

Or blood. A little leftover blood on something in a cooler was also a clue that you were looking at a potential food item. Or fins. Or feathers. Clues to prior existence as a living organism is what the shoppers of yesteryear looked for in their food.

Today we tend to look for clues to prior existence as the featured item in a television commercial as being a clue to desirability: bright colors, snappy names, sexy faces, or space-age packaging (you know, the kind invented by the people at Games Magazine). Today another good food-clue is having seen an athlete or a movie star actually put the item in his or her own mouth. Formerly, this clue was reserved for parents and siblings, a sort of learn-by-example-of-your-loved-ones approach to life. But as the Human Race has Matured, we now know the weakness of a logic which dictates that one should follow the example of someone merely because he or she has a healthy proportion of similar chromosomes.

Individuality is what’s important here. So my advice about food is, go ahead, if you think you can eat it, eat it. If sauteed Brillo pad sounds tasty to you, go for it. If you’re clever enough to figure out how to open the package, you’ve earned the right to eat what’s inside.

Next, Brains. (No, we’re off the food subject now.) These are what make it all happen for you, existence-wise. I obviously don’t need to give you much advice in this area. You’ve already demonstrated a moderate surplus in the cranial department by escaping from your family for the whole summer.

But as you may be slowly realizing, the older you are, the fewer brains you will have. This is a Fundamental Law of Ironic Growth. (I know. I read it in one of those micro-books at the checkout counter, so it must be true, right?) HAH! Wrong! Here’s Brains Advisory #1: Don’t believe what you read in a book full of lists of things to believe, regardless of its size.

Notice I say “a” book. Beware of single points-of-view. We didn’t give you brains just to have you grab onto one idea quickly and ride it forever. (In this sense, I use We in the plural cosmic subjunctive congregate tense, signifying the universal nature of the gene pool from which you evolved, if you follow that school of thought. Don’t let me influence you too strongly here, but do you recall the photo of your great-grandfather holding up a picture of a chimpanzee? Enough said.)

There are many books full of life-lists. The trick in the useful-brains department is to know the difference between, say, the Tao Te Ching and the Cincinnati municipal business-to-business yellow pages. Guiding your life only by one of these is sure to cause you heartache someday soon. The Tao Te Ching can’t help you if you need storm windows, and the biz-to-biz has no advice about inner peace, at least not in Cincinnati.

So, you’ve got to read a lot of different books, with lots of different ideas. If you need a memory-hook to remember this advice, try this: Notice how we say brainS, the plural form of this noun being used as a collective singular conglomerate nominative particle. (You’ll notice parenthetically, that in my case my brains have mutated far beyond my body’s capacity to control them… a symptom of graduate school and decades of work in upper management.)

Reading all these different books, full of all these different lists, you’ll begin to synthesize your own epistemology, or to put it into my college-graduate parlance, get your head together. Since I’m giving you advice, here’s Brains Advisory #2: Start with the Bible and work your way up to Mad Magazine. (But frankly, I think you’ll eventually discover that everything you ever needed to know you learned on that class trip to Washington.)

Third, we come to Air. People think that refers to the gas you inhale. Other certain types you may encounter, call it one of the of Prime Substances. For a long time, no civilized person gave air much thought, except possibly as a medium for radio waves, or something to be heated for lifting balloons.

Now, as you well know, we’re quite aware of the air today, mainly because in many places we can smell it. You know what I mean: not the fresh, sharp, earthy smell of a spring sunrise, which early-birds have always appreciated. I mean that inside of a fungus-encrusted industrial sneaker kind of fragrance which is especially prevalent on hot summer afternoons in your friendly neighborhood metropolis.

I’d say the biggest reason we got ourselves into this mess is, if we ever thought about air, we only thought about the Inhale side of the process. No one gave much thought to the Exhale side, especially Industrial Exhaling, or Automotive Exhaling.

You know about all this of course, and you know we’ve got to be more aware of how our desires put demands on our environment. The Air Issue I wanted to mention concerns your own personal Exhale Process… Air in the sense of Breath, as native philosophers for centuries have understood it.

Look at me trying to give advice to a woodwind student about breathing! You already know how the air inside you becomes part of the air outside you, and when you’ve practiced the control and the care, that linkage of air, that breathing, makes wonderful music.

I wonder how many of us can feel how our Breath is our link to something larger, taking in and giving back that air which is all around us. We’re all breathing it, taking and giving, every second.

Live in the air, Melissa. Give Good Breath. And may we all appreciate the connection.

Many things happen in threes, so that’s a good place to stop. If I have any more brilliant insights, you’ll be the first to know.

Love, Dad.