Four weeks from tonight, if I catapult over some few tiny remaining hurdles (two short reports, an interview, and a scary party—in fact, even if I don’t jump the hurdles), one way or the other, I will turn 40. Forty years old—neither wise nor ready—but at least, I’ve learned to laugh more of the time.
The year my father turned 40, I was 16 years old. I wrote John Updike a fan letter—not on my own behalf, but on his.
“My father reads your books,” I told him. “My father—who incidentally is, like you, a Harvard man—reads your books and thinks about them and takes them apart and shares them with me. And what I think he’d like best of all for his fortieth birthday would be for you to send him—well, even just your signature.”
I was a high-school sophomore or junior—and my father knew his Updike: The Centaur, The Rabbits, several volumes of short-stories. At the time, I could rattle the books off in order. It was only 1985—there were still a manageable number.
I’d take them down from the locked bookshelf one-by-one with his blessing, and read them for insight…into people, into grown men, into the funny, sentimental, brilliant and complex man my father was (and is). I read them to learn the enemy, boys, and the chess board—people, adults, interactions, the tension of wanting freedom, of wanting connection, of never holding onto one’s own wants quite long enough. I read them to learn the Road.
The punchline of this story is that John Updike wrote back!
He sent my father a copy of his book, The Music School (not that we didn’t have The Music School already) but in this one, he had enclosed my letter about my father...and he signed something to the effect of, “Here’s the book I was thinking about when I turned 40.”
Just two months ago, John Updike spoke to my father and me, along with 200 other folks at the UCLA Live series here in Los Angeles. He seemed well…really he did! The Widows of Eastwick was new. He spoke of politics, of his next book, his faith in America. He reminded me again, though he never said as much, that I ought to remember my work ethic, to write more often, to write because I decided to, not because I felt like it. My dad and I sat side by side. The room was cold. He loaned me his sweater. It was still too big. I like that about his sweaters. And I liked being his date, 24 years into sharing John Updike with one another. When I heard about John Updike’s death on Tues afternoon, I had to pull over the damned car. Pulled the damn car right over to the side of San Gabriel Blvd and....phone my dad. I think it’s in Ezra Pound’s The ABCs of Reading that Pound suggests that to truly read a book, one must read it 3 times: when one is younger than the main character, the same age as the main character, and then again when one is older than the main character. I guess it’s time to get around to my Updike again. But last night I tied my running shoes, and I didn’t read a thing. Just like Rabbit, I turned my back on the sink, on a woman I love, on my son in his room slaving over prealgebra, and I set off for a run. It’s January. The lawns here are damaged—the color of winter in Los Angeles—all brown and yellow. And the lights in each house turn on like hope, one two, one two, right around 6 o’clock. I ran and ran. I didn’t know where I was headed. But the lights kept going on, house after house after suburban house, while a woman would come to each kitchen window, and without a bit of hesitation, twist the blinds shut. -J.F.