November 10, 2005

Agent 97's Gift

A couple of days ago I began reading over my old notebooks, begun a quarter-century ago when I was on the brink of becoming both a published novelist and a father. A dangerous business, reading old notebooks. I’ve been feeling dissatisfied with myself lately and I was looking for some evidence of who I am and who I had been and to what extent we were the same. As I expected, the evidence was equivocal. It gave me no clear sign as to what I had done right or wrong, what direction I might have taken differently or might take now. What should the writer of those notebooks have expected from life? The line connecting him to me seemed surreal, both impossibly long and distressingly short: as a writer I seemed to have peaked in the 1980s, though as a person I’d thought I’d grown so much since. And most importantly, what about the line from here to the future? Did I need to change, or continue exactly as I am – and how could I know?

I told no one I was reading the notebooks. Then, last night, when I came home from a tai chi class, I saw a small handwritten sign, red ink on cardboard, on the kitchen table: “Dad, you win!!!!” The sign invited me to Agent 97’s room to pick up a prize.

He had, with no external prompting and purely on impulse, conducted a family lottery, and my prize was a new notebook he had made for me by stapling blank pages into a zebra-striped folder. On the cover he had written, “Work Thoughts.”

It was for me to do my writing in, he told me.

How did he know, when I didn’t, exactly what I needed?