The seventh of those days, Friday the 25th of October, marked the 102nd anniversary of my father’s birth. A number of things made the occasion a melancholy one for me. My illness and resulting exhaustion of course depressed my spirits. So too did the realization that I felt grateful that neither he nor my mother was alive to see where my life had led me. To miss beloved parents and grieve their loss while aware of feeling relieved by their absence is another measure of what I have referred to above as “The Distance.” Happy are they who need not feel that particular kind of shame.
I discovered some months ago a reference in my father’s memoirs to “RLS” (Robert Louis Stevenson) as his hero. Not knowing the man’s work, other than “Treasure Island", which my father read to us children over the course of two weeks one summer vacation. When we had finished dinner, we continued to sit at the table while mother cleared the dishes, wrapped the leftovers, and cleaned up the kitchen. Dad would read a chapter or two each night at that time. If we were very lucky, and if the tale had reached such a crisis that our excitement might keep us from falling asleep, he would read more. These evenings took place at Lake Tahoe, in a cabin which my father rented every summer from one of the secretaries in his office.
Such were the joys of living without television, computers, video games, handheld devices, and all the rest of the electronic gadgets that are trashing our relationships as well as our minds.
It has only been in the years since my father’s death that I have learned a couple of things about him that are wrapped up with this memory. One is that as a young man my father he chose to do volunteer work reading to blind people. While in High School and after, he would visit these folks in their homes and read to them whatever they wanted to hear -- newspapers, books, magazines, et cetera. And while I had known that he majored in journalism at U.C. Berkeley, it was not until I began to do some research into the life of his great-grandfather that I understood his (and thus my) literary bent as most probably genetic: his mother’s grandfather, whom she idolized, had been an owner and publisher of newspapers in northern California and the Nevada Territory throughout the second half of the nineteenth century..
But back to Stevenson. Curious about what kind of writer my father would have so admired, I looked for anything of his that I could find at the Goodwill Store on Mission at Van Ness. I bought two volumes, one a copy of “Treasure Island” (which I re-read with joy) and the other a collection of essays and reviews. In an essay on “The Profession of Letters”, I found the quotation below. In it I recognized much of my father’s character. The humane values and the tone of this passage, and of Stevenson’s work generally, his voice both congenial and charitable, justify my father’s -- indeed, anyone’s -- admiration.
“Whatever be your calling, and however much it brings you in the course of a year, you could still, you know, get more by cheating. We all suffer ourselves to be too much concerned about a little poverty; but such considerations should not move us in the choice of that which is to be the business and justification of so great a portion of our lives; and like the missionary, the patriot, or the philosopher, we should all choose that poor and brave career in which we can do the most and best for mankind.”
Few voices in our day can be heard saying such a thing. Today the Religion of Markets declares that if a thing is valuable to mankind, mankind will bid up its price. Our political debate, especially on the subject of taxes, declares people will not do a thing if they cannot make money, a practically unlimited amount of money at that, by doing it. People argue seriously that any reduction in the money to be earned from a given activity will cause people to cease performing it. Motives such as pride of workmanship and of innovation, honor and self-respect, concern for the well-being of others or of the natural environment, and all values other than the purely mercenary are assumed to be trumped by the question of wages.
Do you know how much Jonas Salk raked in for inventing the polio vaccine that virtually eradicated a disease that had crippled and killed millions every year around the world? Nothing. He had found a way to rid humanity of much suffering, and his pride in that accomplishment and the knowledge that he had honorably performed a service for humanity were enough for him.
So too Theodore Geisel, “Dr. Seuss”, was offered a million dollars for the rights to make a movie of his book “The Cat in the Hat.” His attorney said, “You will go down in history as the first person ever to be paid a million dollars for the rights to a book.” Geisel answered, “I’d rather go down in history as the first man who turned down a million dollars.”
Geisel thought that children who had seen the story in a movie would be less likely to take the effort of reading it for themselves in book form. Since Geisel wrote books for children because he wanted children to learn to read and to love reading, he thought that anything that might interfere with that purpose was not worth any amount of money. Indeed, it has always been the case that writers have written because they thought that what they had to say was worth the trouble of saying it -- certainly not because they thought writing was the surest way to get rich.
So it is with me.