OUR PLANET HAS a celebrated tradition of people thinking they can outsmart the sum of their times. Crackpot ideas and get-rich-quick schemes have long prevailed over pragmatism in the minds of men who salivate at the prospect of money and status, but not at the concept of how much work or tenacity it might take to turn fantasy into reality. Jean-Paul Sartre famously said, “Like all dreamers, I mistook enchantment for truth.” And each of us, if not directly guilty of this offense, knows someone who is. Someone who actually bought Wizetrade software, or overdosed on a weight loss drug that makes your kidneys actually consume each other. Or at least I do. I grew up with humans who challenged reality, not only as a set of rules, but as a Euclidean truth.
My family consists of a mélange of scientists and shtarkers, some hardworking and some hard-thinking, men and women who, in their engineering of chemical compounds, burn for the last word, whether while dueling over a ruling on a checkers’ board or the next course of action on a loved one’s deathbed. This isn’t because they’re bad people. They’re just feral. The offspring of Litvak furriers and surly merchants that boiled like lobsters and froze like snow cones in Boston for three generations after fleeing somewhere even colder, and meaner, in the eastern European bloc. This family history I wear as a badge of pride, a reminder of the importance of argument, and chutzpah. Ever since I can recall, my grandfather, for instance, when saying anything to anyone—or screaming, rather, because that’s just what his mouth does, even at his sweetest—has advocated for causes that would only yield results in a world where old Jewish men with thigh-high shorts, thick torsos, and droopy-jowls are looked upon as the pinnacle of gentility.
Here’s a famous epithet of his, seared now into all of our memories since the first time a member of our kin talked of aspiration in his presence:
“Forget what you’re doing now…”
This might not seem remarkable from an outside perspective, but I can assure you, in my grandfather’s definition, ‘forget’ truly means to put down every single point of contact you’ve had with reality and take up a cause that some men might find…suspicious. Since he first had money—not enough to burn, mind you—he’s been buying the word of silver-tongued salesmen, products that promise overnight prosperity. And not only has he tossed his own money at such whims, but he’s tried, with every fiber of his being, to get others to do the same, get others to help him engineer one scheme or another to conquer existence, thus securing his own dominance over the ultimate, “I told you so.”
One plan, in particular, he still famously insists upon today, as if the reason it hasn’t worked yet is because no one has had the kishkes to make it do so.
“If you want to get rich, you know what you have to do? Popcorn machines. On the streets of Europe.”
This, as I understand it, is his longest acting scheme. The one plan he’s stuck to since 1978, when he finally decided that there had to be a better life for himself than the one he was living at the moment as a high school chemistry teacher with a surfeit of pragmatism but an abundance of want. And years later, as recently as 2010 actually, after throwing dollars into the pockets of dubious men to make it happen, he still continues to set his sights on this foreign investiture, impelled by the promise not to give up on his gut. A gut, I might add, that has been filled with enough anxiety to subject his heart to three attacks in the coming years, including a quadruple bypass.
“They don’t know what popcorn is in Europe,” he said two and a half years ago, over a glass of scotch at my wedding, as I sat beside my wife. “Never even seen it. That’s why I’m telling you, you bring popcorn to Europe, you’ll become a goddamned millionaire. That’s what you need to be doing. Not this…this writing thing. I mean, who writes, anyway?”
“Grandpa,” I said, looking to my wife to maintain composure. I wondered why he hadn’t mentioned hotdogs? Or soft pretzels? Was every food cart merchant a secret millionaire?
“They know what popcorn is in Europe.”
“THEY DO NOT!”
“I’ve been to Europe.”
“Not the one I’ve been to.”
“I ate it in France. At a movie theater. Just like here.”
“Nonsense. It’s an untapped resource.”
“And this writing ‘thing,’ it’s not just a passing fad,” I said, trailing off at the idea of even starting down this road, the one where he’d already decided my aspiration, the one I’d been working at daily for the last ten years, was nothing but a naïve whim. A naïve whim altogether unlike, of course, that of the man who wanted to spread movie theater fare across Scandinavia as if it were the cure to polio.
“You really want to write something? Fine,” he said, downing his glass of scotch and signaling to the waiter for another one with an indecipherable swirl of his finger. I saw the look in his eye of an idea brewing. A flicker of genius. “Write a book using only two-letter words from the Scrabble dictionary.”
This was his latest idea. That no author will ever be greater than James Patterson, and language is only an asset insofar as it makes up the tiled crossings for his favorite word-scrambling game. “Now that’s something I would read.”
“But what about prepositions?” I asked.
“You know, words like ‘and’ or ‘but?”
He took a second, and scowled: “NOT NEEDED.”
Looking into his spectacled eyes, I tried to think up an actual sentence that would function in the manner he’d proposed: Is it in? I’m on it. An ox is my id.
“That would be a hard book to write,” I said, surprised that I’d even given the idea a thought. Though he trashed an actual endeavor I’d undertaken, an effort I’d strived at for ten full years, he seemed completely okay with advocating what sounded like the rantings of a lunatic, as if radical impulse would trump hard work without a thought.
“You’ve got to have ingenuity to succeed,” he said. “In order to get the payoff, you’ve got to jump when the opportunity arises. Or else you’ll end up like your cousin in Florida who’s a certified street performer. You ever met him? Didn’t think so. Might even be dead. As a scientist, I understand these things. There is a formula to getting things done.”
Yes, I thought to myself, still sore for the cynicism towards my writing. There’s also a formula for being a dumb ass.
From the way I describe him here, you might think I’m trying to demean this man, one of my progenitors, deaf in one ear but crazy in two. And to a degree, I suppose I might be. But it would be a mistake to paint a person so broadly, eschewing such essential shades of nuance. My grandfather is a widower, to begin with, losing a woman years ago that was the lynchpin to our family’s cohesiveness, and thus, in many ways, his own emotional solidity. My mother, love incarnate, would follow her years later. My grandfather’s also a scientist, but one who fares better at chemical bonds and complexities with students in a high school classroom, than the bonds with certain people in his life. Over the years he’s struggled to instill his family with the most basal forms of practicality–excessively, it might be said, while working often up to three simultaneous jobs. Family, by default, tends to be a wellspring of idiosyncrasy, some of which is endearing, and some of which is unforgiveable. But people like my grandfather will risk everything to double-down on the prospect of blinding change in a world filled with mind-numbing routine, and it’s from that daring that I write this article now, about the people I know and love.
The intelligent amongst us like to look upon investors in get-rich-quick schemes as foolish, even pathetic, flinging their family’s funds into a pit filled with peddlers of ephemera. But I also think that there’s not much of a line between con artists and salesmen, between people who are willing to fabricate their identities and people who are willing to convince others that the system itself is a fabrication, something that can be subverted by a magical product, a mystical cure-all that will soothe your spirit, alleviate your woes, heighten your libido. Are those who buy into the latest instant guarantor of wealth and ambition the pathetic ones? Or are the true reprobates those who cork dreams in a bottle and sell them at a marked-up price, something high, but not so high that middle class families won’t be able to dish it out?
It took me a while to realize both how similar and different my grandfather and I are. We both look upon reality as incomplete, influenced, in many ways, by myopic people whose hunger for mediocrity threatens to consume big ideas. In this world, if you don’t dream big, you risk being left behind. And that’s no way to live. Even if you inhabit an illusion, at least that illusion is your illusion, where you can make your own rules. But at the same time, while my grandfather looks upon dreams as absurdities, I try to view them as attainable with a lot of hard work.
Minutes after my debut novel was posted on Amazon for pre-sale, my grandfather emailed me. I have no idea how he found out about its release, but there he was, ahead of the game.
I knew you could do it, he wrote. You’ve always been brilliant. Look at what your hard work has yielded.
It was such a warming sentiment. All from the man who’d been telling me for years that it was popcorn that would win me accolades, and not my desired profession. But that sentiment, of course, couldn’t come independent of the obligatory: And I’m glad I supported your endeavors all along. Where would you be without your family? Next step, I have something I want you to write. It’s about the eradicating 12 a.m. and 12 p.m. from the English language…we should only have “noon” and “midnight.” I have Readers Digest in mind for publication. I will email you the synopsis by tomorrow evening. I guarantee, you write this and we’ll both become famous!
I almost growled as I finished reading. Seconds later, I was bitterly hammering out a defense. But before I hit send, I took a deep breath, and erased the draft. I don’t know how my grandfather was raised. I never met his mother. But I spent 27 years with my own, his daughter, before she passed away. My grandfather instilled in her, and all his children, pragmatism and creativity. On the side he might have pursued hare-brained schemes, but his adventures never involved them. His daughter—my mother, who knew all too well that too much zeal, absent of caring, and soul, is no way to live life—told me that dreams are attainable with hard work, consistency, and ambition.
So instead, I bit my lip and wrote him back:
Thank you, Grandpa…Send it through.
And as of this week, I’m still working on an article about noon and midnight that only a crackpot could have ordered. But I’m going to prove to my grandfather that lofty ambitions are attainable, if only you’re willing to see them as so.