I’ve never received much advice one way or the other from my parents—or at least that’s what I’ve always believed. But while unpacking boxes, I happened upon a letter my dad mailed to me my freshman year in college. It was typed, of course. And dated September 24, 1990. The advice he dispenses is not earthshaking, but it’s sincere. I don’t remember receiving it, but I do know that I’ve followed it.
In the intellectual maelstrom that is Iowa City, it is quite easy for people with passionate personalities (that includes both of us) to lose their cool and go over the deep end. Please don’t. Always keep that curious mind of yours alive, and don’t become too ideological (if I might borrow a word from your poli sci prof). Back in the days when the bookmobile used to come to McKinley (remember that delightful book you loved about the engineer, policeman, et al.), there was always a book up near the front on display which was entitled How To Argue With a Conservative. I always refused to read it because I found the premise--that liberals are always right and conservatives always wrong--objectionable. Some of the finest people I presently know and have ever met are religious fundamentalists and/or political conservatives. [. . .] After a while it gets confusing. I would like to think that the people I agree with are always the good guys, but quite often I really dislike people I vote for. (For instance, I actually actively dislike Tom Harkin but like Charles Grassley a lot. I always thought Gary Hart was a phony compared with Walter Mondale, but I happened to agree with Hart in ’84 far more than I did Mondale. It’s just not fair, as you used to say so much.)
The letter, by the way, was right next to the above photo—a family snapshot of a different sort.
This is one in an occasional series documenting unlikely discoveries made while unpacking thirty-seven brown boxes of books and papers.
Still emptying boxes. The above picture was discovered in the vicinity of the note below. This is our kitchen—still is, actually—and my dad used to stand on one end, near the back door, and toss his fishing cap in the direction of my head. A kind of horseshoes. I remember him doing this, except that more likely I am just thinking of this photograph.
January 26, 1972
Brendan, me boy,
I trust, lad, that the time will come when you will exhibit a bit more intelligence than that presently displayed. You are on your third day of diarrahea (sp?), and you seem to enjoy it! I had rather expected you to exercise a bit more control by now.
Actually, Brendan, I am quite proud of you. I get rather excited when I think of your future. I do hope I won’t be too hard on you. Love God and your fellow man, and serve both. Remember the Sermon on the Mount.
Funny that today neither of us particularly loves nor serves God, and only my dad serves his fellow man. And what strange ways we’ve chosen to communicate with one another . . .
I found the above photo while unpacking boxes. It dates to August 1941 and shows my dad with his dad. My grandfather, an Iowa farmer two generations removed from Ireland, died of cancer just shy of his 45th birthday. Dad was nine months old.
“Dad loved horses, always had several around the farm, and went to Montana often to shop for horses,” my dad wrote in an email.
Somewhere there is a photo of him in full cowboy garb that I always thought was real, and I didn’t learn until I was an adult that it was merely one of those photos where you stick your head above the cardboard cutout of the cowboy! I was never a bright child.
Ed Lassen once told me a story about my parents that I found interesting. Mom must have been looking out a house window and saw Dad doing something to a horse that disturbed her, so she came storming out of the house and really ripped into him in the presence of Ed, a young hired man. I mention that because Mom once told me that she was a very quiet presence until Dad died and she had to remake herself just to survive in this big, bad world.
For eight months, my books and papers have been boxed and stacked and far away. “Papers” makes it sound as if I’m keeping some sort of official archive—although, in a way, I am. Since elementary school, I have kept letters and cards, notes passed in class, stories I have written, ticket stubs and theater programs, even snapshots my mom sends me of her garden. Of course, I am just as avid and sentimental a collector of books, hence this series of posts, in which I pined for a few of my favorites. As I waited for their delivery last week, my neighbor wondered why in hell I would buy so many books when I could just as easily use the public library. Here, then, is my reply: passages like this, to be discovered by opening one of my purchases at random:
In his Fractal Geometry of Nature, the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot asks the apparently simple question ‘How long is the coast of Britain?’ The coast is obviously not smooth and regular. It goes in and out in bays and estuaries and promontories and capes. If you measure it at one hundred miles to an inch, all of these irregularities appear. But if you measure it at twenty miles to an inch, new bays open up on the coastlines of promontories and new promontories jut out from the sides of bays. When you measure these as well, the coastline gets longer. At a mile to an inch it is even longer . . . and so on, until you crawl around on your hands and knees measuring the bumps on the side of each rock that makes up the coast. The more accurately you measure it, the more uncertain it becomes. What matters, in the end, is your point of view. Mandelbrot compares the length of the border between Spain and Portugal in a Portuguese and a Spanish atlas. In the former it is 20 per cent longer than in the latter, not because the territory is disputed, but because the Spanish surveyors used a larger scale, and thus measured fewer squiggles.
And this is what my life has felt like of late, suddenly measured on the smaller scale of thirty-seven boxes full of measurements, recordings, and thoughts—from anonymous notes by mysterious ninth-graders that begin, “Dear Brendan, I really don’t know you that well, and you don’t know me, but I really like you and I want to get to know you better. And I’m serious too!” to reflections on the infinity of a coastline.
This was found in one of thirty-seven brown boxes that arrived Thursday from a storage locker in Iowa City. It’s a typed “Dear Jane” letter, dated September 1, 1994, in which I quote Plutarch, John Donne, and Bonnie Raitt; in which I suggest that my breakup is more painful than the loss of a young child; in which I melodramatically inventory the many mementos of my first love. It goes unnoted in the letter that these mementos had been burned the night before—not simply thrown away, but heaped into a pile in the parking lot of my apartment building and set afire. There was even a teddy bear, and the fraternity boys partying downstairs from me began to chant “Burn, Teddy, burn!” For the next month, charred bits of love letters followed me up and down the street, in the wind. That was one irony. That I have saved this letter for more than thirteen years—
Today is a big day for me. I’ve done something I’ve never done before: I’ve thrown out something you’ve given me. OK, I admit I don’t still have the silk boxers you gave me (for Valentine’s Day?) or even the Notre Dame cap. They, like a lot of other things, fell apart. But today marks the first time I have ever thrown away anything that you have written, that you have sent me, that has your name on it, that relates to you, or that in any way reminds me of you or of us. No big deal, right? It was just a birthday card. So I mustered up the courage to toss everything else, too: a whole box filled with all of the letters you had written me over the last three-and-some years (too many to count, but I noticed that some were addressed to Brendan, Brendan Wolfe, Brendan Martin, Brendan Martin Wolfe, Brendan M. Wolfe, BMW; one was even addressed to Endan Bray and had Xs and Os on the back). Other things that went were the photograph of you (along with its shiny gold-colored frame) I used to keep on my desk, the one you actually took of yourself at B—’s party so long ago; and a Polaroid of “The Wonderful” and “The Bully” flanking D— that I swiped from the Summer Vacation Program. Also, the ticket we got for open container October 2, 1992. (It doesn’t mention how all we wanted to do was use your bathroom.) “Campanile Me!” UNI Homecoming ’92 button. A book of matches—Halftime Sports Bar—with “555-5813 Call me! W—” written inside. A letter you wrote me in a bowling alley on the back of a Hepatitis B fact sheet. And a strange dialogue scribbled on the torn reverse-side of a card advertising Dixie beer at the Wheelroom Bar: “Brendan is a babe but he doesn’t pay enough attention to me.” “HE SPOILS YOU 24 hrs a day.” “Charles’ twin is giving me looks.” “DO YOU WANT ME TO KILL HIM? I WILL . . .” “No, just throw BIG Bones @ him.”
The banner image is a detail from Grant Wood’s “Young Corn.” Now owned by the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Community School District, it was painted in 1931: the same year Bix Beiderbecke died and a year after Wood painted “American Gothic.”