Observations / Stories

Elegy

My grandfather died last month. He was pretty much the most intelligent person in the world. When he died, the world got dumber.

Now, hold on. I know what you’re going to say—well, that’s easy to say about your OWN grandfather, but what about mine? And everyone is so subjectively in awe of their own relatives. We’re supposed to respect our elders. We’re supposed to compliment the dead.

Except so many of us die before we’re really dead. Our brains die. Not due to health problems or horrible diseases like Alzheimer’s, but due to giving up, letting go of the present, burying our heads in the sand, getting stuck in the state of the past-world when we were still young and able to absorb everything.

Not my grandpa.

His dad, see… his dad, my mom’s grandfather, and my great-grandfather, Arthur Compton, won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1927. Product of genius or not, it kind of haunted him and us, not like an angry ghost but like an expectant one: “What have YOU done with your life?” (Arthur was also ridiculously good-looking. How is that even fair?)

It’s hard to follow that. It’s hard to follow a career that led to appointing Oppenheimer to the Manhattan Project, to chilling with Einstein and Marie Curie in Germany, to discovering an atomic effect that, while scientifically awesome, would eventually be used to obliterate thousands of Japanese citizens. Political beliefs do nothing to belittle the event: however necessary in wartime, it created a nightmare, and a new world awareness.

My grandfather, after all this, did not go into science. He became a philosopher. He decided that educating people about their own minds and the human condition was more prudent, after such a scientific cataclysm, to creating the future he wanted to see.

When I was a kid, I hated philosophy. I didn’t get it. I thought all philosophers did was sit around and wonder what reality was (like my perpetually stoned high school classmates). And reality was always obvious to me. It didn’t become clear until college, when I studied literary theory and Jacques Derrida and Michael Foucault and Simone de Beauvoir, that philosophy is mostly applied to concrete events and narratives as a means of devising emotion from them. Emotion has meaning. When you give a shit, it’s philosophy.

My grandpa always gave a shit. He subscribed to SCIENCE and the NEW YORKER. He listened to the radio like a lovestruck wire bug. He read books to my grandmother (who is now living with my parents) nearly every night while acting out the scenes like some collegiate theater major. (The story of their first date actually involves a flight of stairs and iconic lines from Shakespeare’s ROMEO AND JULIET. Not kidding.) He talked to me, not like an old man trying to enforce his values upon a rebellious granddaughter, but like a wise soul eager to learn something new about the modern world.

He loved words. When I obsessed over rock bands he would give them nicknames (“Shrub” for Bush and “Golden Throne” for Silverchair). It gave away his enthusiasm for things he didn’t know; even as the only genre on his stereo, year after year, was classical baroque. When I discovered classically influenced metal bands I asked him to identify the harpsichord motifs, which he did with conviction.

And Otsego! That mythical place, and without his family I would know nothing of it. Michigan wood and songs and syrup and waterskiing. Compton traditions. A lakeside cabin that I will own with all my heart, even if I have to sell my soul to keep it. I’ve never wanted to own property except there. My dog will run up and down the pine-needled path one day.

I could go on. But what’s the use? It’s a subjective soliloquy, seen as overdramatic and ridiculous by the audience but known onstage as the truth. It hardly does him justice. But like the wooden blocks arranged to fit inside a fireside puzzle, it makes sense in different ways. Generation after generation, it makes sense.

My grandfather died last month. His dad oversaw the Manhattan Project. He decided that science is awesome, but wisdom is sexy. And I think I agree with him.

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