Autobiographia Literaria or, My Parents Are So Cool

I had a nice lunch with my father last week at a Polish deli near his house. Over pierogies and salad, we talked a little bit about writing, and it suddenly occurred to me that first exposure to poetry was through my dad's tattered copy of Ogden Nash. We recapped one of our favorite:

"Men don't make passes
At girls who wear glasses."

On the (long) drive back to my house, I remembered all the things my parents did for me growing up that encouraged me to be an artist. I was a child in perpetual danger of falling into boredom, since I was the last child left at home, and often needed something other than He-Man or Transformers on which to put my attention.

When I was in grade school, I used to direct (and write, but not on paper) short plays with neighborhood kids, most of which included a monster of some sort and ended with a climactic chase scene that, unfortunately, had no resolution. People attended and, if I remembered correctly, even subsidized the production by playing a nickel for a seat.

One Christmas, my parents bought for me a half-sized Casio keyboard. I couldn't play piano then, but they gave me a few remedial instruction books and from that point forward, I spent many hours. I never became "good," but I always enjoyed it and they always encouraged me. I remember my oldest brother brought home a college girlfriend, and she sat down at the keyboard and just banged out the theme from Terms of Endearment without hesitation, a song I'd been struggling to master since I could only play the right-hand notes.

I asked for lessons. In eighth grade, when I lived on an island in Wisconsin for the year, my parents connected me with the local piano teacher. I blazed through three levels of instruction in that year, learned to read and play bass clef, and even gave a recital. I loved it! I still love piano even now, although I no longer have that old Casio, and someday, when I'm a grown up, I'll own a real piano I can use to get better.

It was also during that time I started writing little stories. Mostly by hand, and mostly awful, as you can imagine. I wrote science fiction. I wasn't ready for literary fiction yet. I also toyed with noir writing, too, although I never knew who committed the crime.

At my parents' encouragement, I took up the trumpet in band. Again, while I never truly mastered it and was, for four years, relegated to second chair, I enjoyed it. I quit once I got to college and had braces put on, and then sold the trumpet for a measley $50 when I was broke in grad school. But I still remember all the fingerings. Still.

In high school, my parents were going to throw away my dad's typewriter, having upgraded to a Mac computer, and asked me if I wanted it. It found a home in my bedroom, where I'd furiosly type out my stories and poems, which I'd recently begun to write. I loved that old typeweriter, the hum of it that shook the wall of my room, the punch and tap of the keys, the ugly Courier font. I wrote in rhyme and meter. It seemed right.

Not long after, my parents gave me a key to my dad's office, located in the "downtown" area of my hometown (think Stars Hollow from Gilmore Girls), and I was allowed to go there after-hours to write and print out my poems. I'd take these furious little poems to my high school English teacher, who would give me a yea or nay on them. I did this for several years, until I went to college.

In college, I pursued a degree in film studies, which my parents supported, even though it was sure to lead me to the soup kitchen and the unemployment line. Although they probably would have preferred I study something more practical, I'm afriad the bar was lowered after my older brother graduated with a degree in French literature. So, thanks for that, Dennis.

I never once thought about a life in the arts—nor of "being a poet"—because such things were never discussed or considered in my house. But I also never considered that the arts weren't a worthy pursuit, even if it never led to anything gainful or anything more than personal enjoyment. Still, I have spent the past three years slowly teaching myself to play the acoustic guitar. I play the guitar more than I read or write poetry. But it doesn't seem to matter and my neighbors haven't complained yet, even after my 300th run through of "Tainted Love."


  1. Your parents ARE cool.

    My parents were also so wonderful about supporting and nurturing our dreams, no matter what the dreams were. I think I've told you this before, but one of my favorite stories about my mom is how she marched down to our high school in a real How Dare You Fury after one of my brother's teachers gave him a C on one of those What I Want to be When I Grow Up reports, because my brother's dream of being a professional football player was "unrealistic." She pointed her finger and puffed out her chest and told the teacher that her children could be whatever they wanted to be, and that he had better never tell them otherwise.

    Ryan didn't end up becoming a football player, but he knew for the rest of his life that his parents believed in him, which is very very cool. :)

  2. excellent post, charlie.

  3. My parents always let me get away with procrastinating on chores if I was reading or writing: "I'll set the table when I get to a good stopping place!" "Oh, okay."

    They did a great job of nurturing my creative abilities, such as they are, but as a result I still procrastinate on chores and housework, and therefore I live in a sty. :)

  4. This is lovely. I want to hear you read it on NPR. (And I mean that in a good way). This American Life?