Monday, August 12, 2013

Compare and Contrast

When I was an English major in college we were often asked to write essays comparing and contrasting various aspects of literature.  Sometimes it would be two authors’ styles, or works in one period versus another, all with the goal of bringing deeper insight into both sides of the coin.  Generally speaking, I hate
compare and contrast assignments.    Once in a seminar on 16th century drama, we were asked to compare and contrast two versions of Edward II, one by William Shakespeare and one by Christopher Marlowe.  I couldn’t wrap my head around the point of comparing and contrasting two plays written by two men who were not only contemporaries but also acquaintances.  Their styles are not that different, the story is the same, and the themes are the same.  The only things different are the lines and the language.  I called my professor at her home and asked her to what end we were doing this.  She tried to explain the rationale and I kept challenging her. Finally, she just sighed and said, “Sometimes it’s just a worthwhile exercise.”   I said, “Alright, I still don’t see what the point is in the instance, but I’ll do it.”  I heard an audible sigh.  Professors love it when you challenge them like this.  “Please do Mr. Sharpe.  I can’t wait to see what you come up with.”  Until then I didn’t know sarcasm can sometimes be transformed into a solid and hurled at someone even through a phone line.

Not long ago I was leafing through some photo albums looking for old photographs I could use in a collage I was making.  I hadn’t looked at them in awhile and I deeply struck by how much my family and friends had changed and grown over the years.   I thought about how our lives had not been straight lines from point A to point B, but rather random corkscrews and zig-zags to a point C that none of us could have foreseen when we were young.  The one consistent was that we did keep moving forward.  Tonight I was thinking about the nature of change and growth. Two people in my life from both past and present came to mind.  Suddenly a compare and contrast came to mind.   So despite my feelings about that I’ll do it anyway.

The first time I met Paulie was when the planes hit the World Trade Center.  Union Station was packed and there was no way to catch a fast train home so that you could be with your family.  I called Karen and told her it was going to take me awhile and then I went into the Metro Deli off the Grand Hall.  It was packed too, filled with people drinking, their eyes glued to the screens and watching the television screens mounted above the bar.   Paulie and I struck up a conversation.   He told me that he was a clerk for the Cook County Court.   His job was to fetch case files for attorneys when they asked for them and to take them up the courtrooms for hearings.  He seemed like a nice enough guy and we talked until I could get on a train out to Naperville.  Later on I would see him around the bar when I would stop in for a beer and eventually we got to be friends.

It’s hard to describe Paulie other than to say that somewhere along the line, somewhere in the early sixties, he let time pass him by.  Although he was only in his mid-forties when I met him he used expressions like “You palookas,” and ‘Ha, ha, where did you hear that one? Jimmy’s Whiz Bang Comics?”  He thought all of television was terrible because it could not live up to the Andy Griffith Show.  No music was as good as the music from the sixties. We all had cellphones, PDAs and laptops.  Paulie had a pager.  When it went off he would go running for a pay phone.   He used to rail at us, “You guys and your gadgets.   People lived without gadgets before.”  He had no debit card, no credit card.  If he didn’t have any cash, he’d hit you up for a sawbuck until his next paycheck.  Being with Paulie was like being with a sixty-year old guy in a shot-and-beer place in Ukrainian Village, which is where he lived in his parents’ old apartment, only in a forty-four -year old man’s body. 

I’d like to be able to say that in the twelve years that Paulie’s been my good friend, he has grown and changed over time but he hasn’t.  He is exactly the same as he was when I first met him.  He still wears the sweaters his aunt knitted for  him when he was a young man, still comes in and slaps me on the head with his newspaper and calls me Tommy, and still yells loudly about how nothing will be as good as it was when he was a kid.  He still lives where he always did.  He still fetches files.   We were successful in pulling him a few steps into the present.  We convinced him to get a cellphone, if for no other reason than safety.   Otherwise, Paulie has not changed, not grown at all, and probably never will.  He’ll always live in the early sixties.  It’s not that Paulie doesn’t want to grow up.  I think he just doesn’t want to leave a time and a place where he felt good about the world.

Compare and contrast that to Don Scott.  Don was Karen’s uncle by marriage.  He was married to my father-in-law’s sister, Patty.   He was born in the late twenties.  His family lived in the Rockaway Beach neighborhood of Queens, New York City.  I don’t get the impression his family had a lot of means.   That didn’t seem to slow Don down.  He graduated high school when he was sixteen, and then went to Harvard, which he graduated from when he was nineteen.   By the time most people of his generation were just contemplating what they would do after college or a graduate program, Don already had his PhD from M.I.T.   He went to work for Searle Laboratories, and later was one of the principal researchers who developed what Is now the most common sweetener in diet sodas and other foods.  After becoming very well off on patents, he could have sat on his laurels, but instead he decided to get his MBA at the University of Chicago.  

The first time I met Don was at a family Christmas party on the Northwest side where all of Karen’s Chicago family hail from.   I had to go alone with her mother and father and siblings because she had to work.  It was sort of a coming out party for me with that side of the family.  Don I got to talking about all sorts of things that we both found interesting; things like philosophy, the role of science, and travel.  Don had been all over the world acting as a consultant and I think he saw by the look in my eyes how much I wanted to do that one day.  Through the years Don and I became very close.  After every holiday dinner he would lend me one of his pipes and we would take a walk together, smoking and talking about deep things.   We would e-mail regularly and talk on the phone all of the time.

Don was not without a sense of humor.  Although he usually dressed and looked like a stereotypical professor, sometimes I would visit him for lunch when Patty was out and about, and he’d be wearing a Looney Toons T-shirt of Sylvester the Cat over his dress shirt.  He’d answer the door and say, “You can’t come in until you give me your line and in character.  I’d sigh, roll my eyes, and say, “I taht I saw a puddy-tat.  I did! I did!”  Patty always wore a Tweety Bird t-shirt to match Don’s , but for a hot-shot twerp of a business guy it felt a bit embarrassing.  Still I always laughed.

Don always encouraged me to keep learning, and to embrace change.  I once teased him about his constant quest for knowledge. “Don, even Einstein said he could never understand it all.”  Don just took a drag on his pipe, smiled, and winked. “He didn’t try hard enough. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try.”  I laughed. “I mean really, why else live if not to grow?”  

I guess the purpose of this compare and contrast was to explore what change and growth mean for different people.  Some people can find a spot they are happy in and be perfectly content staying there for the rest of their lives.   Others always have to be constantly moving forward, climbing the next mountain.  I’m not here to judge, but for my money I’ll take the latter over the former every day.