What makes a writer? Every writer’s path to the craft is unique; I credit parents and a sickly childhood.
Dad was a US Navy officer who’d graduated from the Naval Academy in the depths of the Depression. As a rule, ROTC graduates stay in the military for several years; but in 1933 there were no more positions in the US Navy than there were anywhere else. Dad was mustered out. The Governor of Rhode Island recommended him for a new MBA program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: the Sloan Fellowship.
Yes, that Sloan. Today its grads step into six-figure jobs and corner offices. In 1934 Dad worked on a banana boat, swabbing decks and shaking tarantulas out of his shoes. He finally found work with an engineering company that sent him back where he’d grown up: the Pacific Northwest.
Dad was playing tennis with his roommates from a Seattle bachelors’ residence when onto the court sashayed a green-eyed brunette in a thigh-high skirt. Game over. They married as Dad went off to war, and stayed together till Mom died in 1998. Toward the end of his life I asked Dad if they’d ever contemplated splitting up. Murder many times, he told me; divorce, never.
Though they were a love match, they were still the oddest pair. Dad was the smartest man I’ve ever met: and I’ve spent my career interviewing Nobel laureates. He scored 110% on one college calculus exam, having aced every question but one, in which he found an error. He wrote what it should have said and answered it, again perfectly. “Look, Tommy,” his prof said. “You know this stuff better than I do. Why don’t you teach it?” So all the rest of the academic year, Dad instructed his former classmates.
The physicist Freeman Dyson was once asked how it felt to grow up as a genius. “I never thought I was one,” he said. “I just wondered why everybody else was so slow.” That describes Dad. It’s in my plans to write a fictionalized biography of him one day, to get into the head of this fabulous man.
Yet if Dad was smart, it was intellectually: he had zero social intelligence. He hated bridge and said so; he wore Argyle socks and mismatched tweeds and sweat-stained fedoras. Mom saved him. The daughter of a Canadian banker sent to open a branch in the US, she embodied the definition of a lady: a woman in whose presence a man feels and acts like a gentleman.
At her request, I once took her to my press club to see a film. I felt apprehensive because its clientele [including me] were a bunch of potty-mouthed, hard-drinking jerks. Mom mopped the floor with them. They body-checked one another to show her to a seat; blushed when she smiled at them; mumbled heck and darn. I was flabbergasted at their transformation, and told her so. Oh! This is nothing. Your father’s a Navy man, Mom said, turning to a rock-jawed sports writer who catapulted off his barstool to light her cigarette.
A real lady doesn’t flinch whatever she sees, Dad explained. She won’t even let on there was anything to flinch at. Give me an example, I asked. Dad said: A Navy man, a war hero, attends a lunch at a Ladies’ Patriotic Society. Cucumber sandwiches on crustless bread – he endures it manfully. Then the ladies, who have been at the sherry, ask to hear a Navy rhyme. Ladies, he says, I will accede to your request. But in place of each atrocious word, I will insert a nonsense syllable. Yes, yes! they clamor. So he recites –
Da da da da da da da da
Da da da da da da da da
Da da da da da
Da da da da da
Da da da da da da da cocksucker.
As the ladies were ladies, Dad said, they didn’t bat an eye. Whisky?
From Dad I got a brain or two – ten percent of his; I never got calculus – and his analytical mind. Growing up as the son of an engineer who designed steel mills, I learned to love industrial sites that most folks consider stinking eyesores. Dad showed me how to look beneath appearances to what those sites did: they transformed things. I learned to look at rolling lines and Bessemer furnaces and see beyond the smell and noise to the process. Look at the world this way, and it holds little that’s boring or ugly. In fact the only really nasty things I know are human greed and cruelty. Dad gave me his X-ray eyes.
From Mom I got a few social smarts – again, maybe ten per cent of hers – and something worth more than fine manners: The ability to switch them on and off at will. It’s said that the truly well-mannered are always that way, even when no one else is around. Absurd! People like that are in chains, terrified of offending their snotty superegos. The real beauty of manners comes when you see what they are: not tyrants but servants. Once you’ve put them in their place, for example, you can be truly tactful – not reticent or groveling, but knowing ‘how far to go too far. You can work a room like that. You can talk to anyone, sinner or Senator (or both).
Mom also gave me her love of English. What Dad did with metal she did with speech: she was its master. She didn’t write much, but her outlook was a writer’s. Like all good writers, she didn’t use the language: she was the language. She could break down English to its constituent gears and springs and reassemble it with a watchmaker’s skill. When the neighbor’s cat pestered us, she called it Ubi. “Ubi, quit us!” she’d say – punning on ubiquitous. When the cat slept in the garden she’d call it Rosicrucian, i.e. crushing roses. On sunny days Mom would burst into song, replacing unknown lyrics with crazy improvisation. She rode speech the way that a hawk rides thermals.
Take all that – the analytical bent and probing vision, the constant curiosity and love of language, the arsenal of manners – and you have a good recipe for a writer. The only thing left is the oven to bake those ingredients into a finished product: and that I had when I got asthma at age eight.
One October day I walked home from school through a chill downpour, got drenched, and found it nearly impossible to breathe. My parents consulted specialists; replaced curtains with blinds, carpet with hardwood; gave away the orange tomcat I adored. And for the next hundred months I missed 90 days of school per year. Exercise convulsed me. The mildest cold attacked my lungs.
In recompense, a great gift was accorded me: solitude. Flat on my back in bed, or walking alone in the woods near our house, I found with the Elizabethan poet that ‘my mind to me a kingdom is.’ Every book held infinite possibilities. Every poem was dynamite. Music was a soundtrack to wild adventure.
When I walked or hiked, I saw. The leaves that shone green weren’t green: they reflected green. What drove photosynthesis, and through it all life, were non-green wavelengths. I could look through bare March branches and see the seasonal ramp-up of ground-level solar flux. See bioactive nitrogen migrate from dead leaves to live ones. See ambient air pressure rise in June.
The year I turned eighteen, a switch flicked on my asthma. I’d been close to death more times than I’d realized; now death took a break. I could exercise without convulsing. Play sports without collapse. Run a marathon. Learn karate. I could breathe.