An Old Friend Visits; And schools me. Again.

A lot of people take time at the end of the year to reflect on what has happened in the past twelve months and to make resolutions on what they’d like to do in the next twelve. I reject this arbitrary date and choose to do my reflections five days later on my birthday. Those five days can make a big difference as I get to see a lot of my friends blowing resolution after resolution before I’ve even made mine.

This year is going to be a little different. Instead of doing all the work myself, I decided to invite my friend Mark Twain in for a chat. I was hoping that his wit and wisdom would help me make sense of the past year and give me some hope for the next (and last) 360 days of 2014.

Twain met me at the house around 7:30 in the morning and as was his habit, reached for a cigar almost the moment he was seated in the living room. There’s not much my wife hates more than smoke in the house, so despite the blowing snow and frigid temperatures, we made our way into the backyard and hopped in the hot tub. Keeping a cigar lit and a bourbon balanced at 7:30 in the morning in a hot tub is no easy feat, but Twain was so familiar with the first three things, that the hot tub was just a minor nuisance.

Twain seemed vaguely familiar with the area having visited here in 1895 on the first leg of a speaking tour. Lots has changed, of course, but he was quite at home in the woods of northern Michigan. After exchanging the normal pleasantries he asked me what I viewed as the most important things that happened to me in the past twelve months.

P: As I turn 59, it’s hard to imagine all the changes in my life since we last talked. A new job, a new home, a chance to write for the local paper, back to taking college classes, the fascinating growth of my first grandson through his first year of life, all three children with wonderful partners. And of course, this hot tub.

T: All fine and good, but that’s not what I’m asking about and you know it. The physical changes in a man’s life are reflected in his bones…the mental changes in his eyes…and your eyes are different…more narrow…more alive…but more narrow.

P: You sure you don’t want to hear about my grandson?

T: I didn’t come all this way to smoke and drink and exchange pleasantries. You could do that with someone who didn’t die in 1910.

P: Fair enough. Narrower eyes, you say? It’s probably my growing frustration with politics.

T: Nonsense. Frustration with politics is a real man’s destiny. It may make you drink more, but your eyes just get droopy.

P: But I am frustrated. And I know you were too. Some of your best one liners were about politics and politicians, and you didn’t say those things because you were enamored of the process!

T: Heck, without those fools creating material for me, I’d still be Sam Clemens. I owe them everything.

P: But it was that frustration that created your genius, no?

T: There was a time when I thought I could sell reason to the people, and that maybe even the politicians would wake up. But then I learned to never argue with stupid people. They will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.

P: Ok, there you go again. It can’t be that everyone who disagrees with how you think is stupid, can it? It’s certainly tempting to go there, but that just doesn’t seem logical.

T: Take religion and politics. How often can you have a real discussion with someone who disagrees with you?

P: It’s hard. Sometimes real hard.

T: I am quite sure now that often, very often, in matters concerning religion and politics a man’s reasoning powers are not above the monkey’s.

P: So there’s no point in trying to make sense of it?

Twain leaned back and took a long drag off his cigar, sipped some bourbon, and followed that with another long drag. As I studied his face, I could see he was troubled, and I thought maybe our conversation was over. I knew from past experience that you don’t interrupt Twain until he’s exhaled fully and raises that big bushy brow over his right eye. As if on cue, he looked at me, but offered no answer.

P: You look concerned.

T: This isn’t Cuban is it?

P: What?

T: The cigar. Not Cuban.

P: Oh…well…right…the United States can’t trade with Cuba…been that way for over 50 years.

T: Nonsense! Didn’t we win that splendid little war?

P: Well, that one…right…but little Cuba pissed us off and we just can’t seem to get over it.

T: Don’t bother with the details. Americans have never really understood the world very well. I’m pretty certain God created war so that Americans would learn geography.

I hate laughing at his one liners because it just encourages him, but this time I chuckled. He smiled and closed his eyes as I reached over and re-started the jets on the tub.

P: Let’s get back to religion and politics. It’s certainly at the root of why my eyes are narrower than they used to be. It seems that good solid moral people ought to be able to govern themselves based on a set of principles fundamental to our culture.

T: You’re not talking about the Bible are you? The Bible has noble poetry in it… and some good morals and a wealth of obscenity, and upwards of a thousand lies.

P: So when people keep pointing to the Bible, they’re really just justifying their bad behavior?

T: Usually. If Christ were here, there is one thing he would not be — a Christian.

P: Boy did I get some people going when I said that in my newspaper column a few weeks ago!

Twain laughed heartily.

T: Of course you did! Remember what people can blame on God, they don’t have to own themselves.

P: Well, ok, but that really doesn’t relieve my frustration.

T: Why on earth would you want to do that?! Sure, people close to you will first get amused, then annoyed, then they’ll run or pretend they’re sleeping every time you open your mouth, but in the end, that frustration will allow one or two good ideas to make it into print. Above all, let us be thankful for the fools. But for them the rest of us could not succeed.

P: So my wife covering her head with a pillow…and a blanket…and a quilt each time I look at the newspaper could be a good thing?

T: You worry too much. I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.

With that I knew the conversation and the visit was over. The things that caused me the most angst in 2013 were the things that were the most provocative to my growth as a human being. What I try to get my students to do…get uncomfortable…happened to me all year long. And just as it does for my students, it made me grow and learn.

As Twain toweled off and tossed his chewed (and chlorinated) cigar into the bushes, he promised to return again next year. Apparently reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. I hope he makes it through customs though, as he vowed to make a quick stop at Havana on his way up.

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