Excerpt of Losing My Cool by Thomas Chatterton Williams
(Page 6 of 7)
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If Pappy was a tyrant, he was a gentle and conflicted one, who
did not relish the role. He yearned for a time when he would cease
having to be one at all. What he hoped was that if he could somehow
just make reading and studying appealing enough to his boys,
eventually we wouldnt need his prodding anymore and wed simply
do it on our own. To that end, he made sure not just to dangle
punishment over our heads, Sword of Damoclesstyle, and leave
it at that. He went out of his way to be fair. If we just did what
he asked without too much complaint, he would do us some real
solids in return, such as paying us generously for our time (Studying is your job, and an honest days work deserves an honest days
pay), intervening on our behalf when our mother doled out
chores (Studying is their only job), and tolerating a slew of hair,
clothing, and dating choices that were in flagrant violation of his
Despite these enticements, Clarence would always find it difficult to take to long periods of study, and he went through fits of
resistance routinely. Being the younger brother, I had the advantage
of learning from his mistakes and avoiding most of his battles. I
was what Pappy called a dutiful son. Most of the time this dutifulness
of mine sufficed. We were rarely in open conflict with each
other, and he was almost always patient and playfully encouraging
Thomas Chatterton, hed say, addressing me by my middle
name as I sped through his study on my way to the kitchen, oblivious
to my surroundings. Do you know you wear the name of a
brilliant poet, son? hed call from the other room.
Yeah, of course, Babe, Id say, poking my head into the refrigerator,
looking for something sweet.
And do you know they call him the Marvelous Boy, his poetry
was so fine? hed say, still talking to me from the other room.
Uh-uh, Id say with my mouth full.
Well, they do. His poetry was so fine, in fact, and he was so
young when he wrote it, that the adults couldnt even believe the
work was his own. They all accused him of copying someone else,
someone much older.
They sure did. And do you know that he became so distraught
by this, he became so discouraged, that he killed himself when he
was only seventeen years old? He decided he couldnt live with
Yes it is, son. Life is not fair. But now youre going to bring honor
to his name, arent you? Its very important that you do that, son.
But I dont know how to, Babe, Id say, returning to the study
with a bowl of ice cream or a glass of soda in my hand.
Well, you dont have to be a poet, son. You can be a great philosopher,
for examplepull up a seat.
A philosopher? Id say, and sit down.
Yes, in fact, youre a philosopher already, arent you?
I dont think so, Id say, my cheeks flushing.
Well, yes you are, son. Think about it: Do you question the
things around you? Do you reflect on their meaning? Are you interested
in the truth?
Then youre a philosopher, son, he would tell me, and I would
laugh, embarrassed because I didnt feel at all like a philosopher,
whatever that was I could only imagine. I felt ignorant, which is
what I confessed to him. And he would tell me that ignorance is
the beginning of knowledge and talk of men named Socrates and
Confucius. He revered these two men perhaps above all other
men, Socrates for his edict to know thyself and Confucius for his
devotion to learning and personal excellence, he said. I would sit
there at Pappys desk, exhausting whatever sugary collation I had
brought with me from the kitchen, and listen to him talk. Well, Ive
told you enough, hed eventually say. Now, you tell mehow am
I going to grow up and be smart like you? Wed laugh and Id try
to come up with some reply. These questioning talks I had with
Pappy were so frequent in my childhood that to this day the name
Socrates remains mingled in my mind with the image of my balding
and bearded father seated in his study. I cannot think of one
without inadvertently conjuring the other.
Excerpted from Losing My Cool
by Thomas Chatterton Williams. Copyright © 2010 by Thomas Chatterton Williams.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Press. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.