“Homework on Uranus” By Nathan Graziano


Homework on Uranus

I am washing the dinner dishes while my son,
shoulders slumped at the kitchen table, groans

about his science homework while my wife
waits with the patience of a beach stone

beside him, tapping a pen and pointing 
at his assignment. “Concentrate,” she says.

My son moans like a beaten dog then starts 
reading his assignment and begins laughing.

“Dad, this article says that Uranus is a ‘gas giant.’”
He buckles over, grabbing his gut, hysterical. 

My wife glares at me, a laser beam of derision,
hoping against hope that I’d be the father-figure,

explaining to my twelve-year old son that Uranus jokes
are sophomoric, that he needs to concentrate

on his school work and not succumb bathroom humor
or fatuous planet puns and concentrate, son. 

Concentrate. Instead, I drop the pot I’m drying 
and haw, a hearty guffaw. “Uranus is a gas giant!” I say.

My son blows a raspberry on his forearm, tears
streaming down his cheeks, and my wife stands up.

“I’m done. You help him with this,” she says to me
and leaves the kitchen, leaving my son and me, both

in middle school, giving wedgies in the locker room,
pulling fingers in class, laughing in the face of maturity.  


About the Author: Nathan Graziano lives in Manchester, New Hampshire, with his wife and kids. His books include Teaching Metaphors (Sunnyoutside Press), After the Honeymoon (Sunnyoutside Press) Hangover Breakfasts (Bottle of Smoke Press in 2012), Sort Some Sort of Ugly (Marginalia Publishing in 2013), and My Next Bad Decision (Artistically Declined Press, 2014), Almost Christmas, a collection of short prose pieces, was recently published by Redneck Press. Graziano writes a baseball column for Dirty Water Media in Boston. For more information, visit his website: www.nathangraziano.com.


More By Nathan Graziano:

Explaining Depression To My Cousin



Image Credit: Photo of Uranus from NASA. Public Domain

The Typewriter

Royal Typewriter, circa 1950s. Photo credit: mrtypewriter.tripod.com.

The Typewriter
By John Unger Zussman

A year after I’d lost him, I taught myself to touch-type. I relished our old Royal, his old Royal. I loved how the keys plunked and the typebars clattered, how the letters appeared neatly on the line, one after the other. I reveled in the ping of the bell and the thwack of the carriage return. By the time I finished the lessons, it was not the typewriter’s music I craved but its lyrics: a powerful word, a deft sentence, a paragraph that leaves you breathless.

Although I knew my father had written, I didn’t expect the thick envelope of manuscripts my mother presented me when I turned forty. From it spilled war stories and postwar stories, war poems and love poems, the first chapter of a novel. He’d dreamed of a life as a writer and, judging by his professors’ comments, showed promise. Then he joined my grandfather’s warehouse business so he could marry her and have me. He packed those pages away, planning, I suppose, to return to them when the business got to its feet and we kids could make our own way to school.

My manager and my writing mentor want me to write something commercial instead of another passion project. I see their point. But I conjure the smoky late-night staccato of my father at the Royal. No. I don’t think so.

Today’s post is the third of three in tribute to my father, Myron “Mickey” Unger, who would have turned 85 in August. In September, I posted a reaction to an old baby picture of me in a stroller, laughing, with my parents on either side. Last month, fifty years after his death, I continued the story with a poignant essay on life and parenthood that my father wrote in the ’50s, called “Upon Reaching the Age of Three.”

I am grateful for your interest and comments. It is comforting to know that my father’s words, even now, can move those who didn’t even know him.

Copyright © 2010, John Unger Zussman. All rights reserved.

Tiger Moth

[This story was originally published in The Chaffey Review in May of 2009.  It is reprinted here with minimal editorial changes.]

Tiger Moth

by Raul Clement

For a long time after the boy’s death, the father sat in the darkened rooms of the house and stared at his empty hands. They were strange birds. The mother made several delicate attempts to pull him back into their world: she bought tickets to plays, she arranged dinner with the couple down the street, she ironed his suits. Then one afternoon she found him in Derrick’s bedroom, pieces of a remote-operated model Tiger Moth spread before him. With a penknife he was chipping a wing from the battered body of the plane.

I thought I should rebuild it,” he said.

How did you get in?” she demanded.

In the yard shadows played on the bleached frame of the shed he’d begun last summer. A tarp serving as a doorway beat in the wind. He was self-employed, a woodworker retouching antiques, and for nearly a month he’d taken no clients.

Well?” she asked.

He squinted at her and then went back to his tapping, until the motor spilled into his palm. He cradled it, tracing a sloppy scar of glue. “It’s smaller than I would have guessed. Odd…such a little thing could fly.”

He had found the key, then. She remembered locking Derrick’s room the day before the viewing. He should be buried in something nice, the mortician had said. She’d laid out three suits on the bed, ironing them and choosing matching ties, before flinging them to the floor, and the blankets with them, the sheets, the mattress slip. She rested her cheek against the naked mattress, feeling the springs behind its cool drum-tight skin—there was a rust-orange stain at the foot of the bed. Australia, she thought absurdly, it looks like Australia.

At last she stood, wiped the mascara smudges from her cheeks, smoothed her dress. From the closet she took a navy-blue uniform with wings stitched across the shoulders. That Halloween Derrick had been a pilot, part of a year-long obsession that included radio flyers, books on Charles Lindbergh, the Bermuda Triangle. He should be buried in this, not the starchy church attire he’d always hated.

The father had finished breaking down the plane, and had the pieces spread on a square of cloth. With a thin brush, he dabbed the propeller with red paint. He put on a few black spots.

Ladybug, he thought. Derrick used to pull them apart. Maybe this one would put itself together again and fly away.

She held out her hand. “Give it to me.”

Is it so late already?” He began to shuffle from the room.

Where’s the key? How did you get in?”

He glared at her as if she were being willfully dense. “He opened it for me.”

She went to the mirror in the hallway and ran her finger over the dusty lip, encountering loose metal. The key was where she’d left it. She locked the room, and taking the key to the basement, hid it behind the boiler, inside a box stuffed with her grandmother’s china.


That night she awoke with a bladder full of the wine she’d had to help her sleep. As she stepped into the hallway, she noticed an alien glow from behind Derrick’s door. She tried the knob and the door swung open. There was a magazine fanned out on the bed, a record jacket on the floor—things not in themselves meaningful, but disturbing because she couldn’t remember how they got there.

She hurried to the basement and dragged the box into the light. She dug around for the key, and when she could not find it, she removed the china, dish by dish. She unwrapped and shook out the brittle newspaper. The pages fell apart, leaving the smudges of letters on her fingertips. She held her shaking hands up to her face, and then spit on them, began rubbing them furiously on her nightgown. Then she remembered herself and let her arms fall to her side, looking about quickly as if to make sure she hadn’t been seen.

In the bedroom she shook him awake. “I don’t know how you did it, but this can’t go on.”

He rolled away from the light, smothering his head with a pillow.

The next morning she found him on the back porch, turning the nearly assembled plane in his hands, noting the way it caught and twisted the light.

He was grinning, proud but sheepish. “It’s really going to fly this time.”

Stop blaming yourself,” she told him.

But they were talking about different things. They always would be. Because there it was, over his shoulder, the shed—skeletal beams swaying a little in the foundation. As long as it stood, she knew, it would mock even their modest attempts to move on.


When Derrick was eight years old, she enrolled him in Cub Scouts. They met Sunday afternoons in the basement of a block-shaped church—Derrick and a dozen boys his age. She’d had to bribe Derrick with the promise of a new bicycle if he attended the meetings for at least six months. Her hope was that some of the enthusiasm of the other boys would rub off on Derrick, but before the meetings he wouldn’t join them as they traded comic books and dashed through the sprinkler on the lawn. Instead he took a seat on the church steps, waiting to be let inside. Three hours later he would be in the same position, studying his shoelaces in the cricket-filled dusk.

One evening, after several months of meetings, he ran to her car where she idled on the curb. He thrust a paper through the window, some sort of newsletter. “Model plane contest. We’ve got to build our own planes and install our own engines and the one that flies the best wins. Fifty dollars. There’s also a prize for best design.”

A few days later, he sat hunched over the kitchen table, an elaborate spread of penciled forms and symbols before him—blueprints for the assembly of a de Havilland Tiger Moth. From the doorway, she and her husband watched. “You know, the other boys’ fathers will help them,” she told her son.

The other boys won’t learn anything,” Derrick said.

Two weeks later, everyone gathered in a gravel lot outside of town. The lot was surrounded by toothy columns of pines, and just beyond, the throbbing passage of the river. Birds sang in high branches. The boys fidgeted in their crinkly uniforms, pants rolled up to relieve some of the heat. The planes were lined up in the dirt at one end of the lot, and there was a narrow length of tape at the lot’s opposite end, where onion grass swallowed the gravel.

You boys ready?” asked the scout leader. “What was that? You didn’t sound ready to me.”

Yes, sir!” came the boys’ trilling voices, and then one boy’s belated, “Let’s do it!”

The boys took their positions in front of their planes and the scout leader blew the whistle. The parents watched, leaning against the sun-warmed hoods of their cars, as the planes climbed into the air. But one plane wasn’t rising at all, was just bouncing across the pebbly lot, running aground on plastic bags and rocks, wheels spinning desperately, at last breaking free. The other planes had already landed safely and now everyone was waiting, watching the Tiger Moth as it lifted briefly off the earth, came smacking back down. Just before it reached the finish line, the plane leapt as if stung, climbing ten or fifteen feet in the air, before plummeting into the wall of grass.

The boys ran forward, looking for the lost plane. They wandered the field in circles and when that didn’t work, they combed the area in orderly lines. The parents joined them. Derrick drifted back to his parent’s car, and climbed into the back seat, slumping out of sight. The sun was sinking behind the trees before they found the plane, still mostly intact save a wing, buried in an anthill a few yards further on. They carried the broken body back to the cars.

But Derrick was not in the car. So another search party was formed, this one equipped with flashlights and cell phones, with which the parents radioed each other. Hours later, the last smear of sunset draining from a sky thick with crows, they found him in the spidery branches of a tree at a bend in the river. He was out on a thin limb, over an archipelago of slick rocks, the river gushing below him. The branch creaked beneath his weight, as if it might snap at any moment. He refused to come down.

Let me up there,” his father said, removing his jacket. He scaled the trunk and made his way onto a nearby branch. “Derrick,” he said. “How about you come in a little, so we can talk?” He reached out. “Will you at least hear what I have to say?”

There was a murmur from below as Derrick scooted a little closer to his father, and then a bit more. His father leaned forward, grabbing another branch to brace himself. He spoke in a whisper. He didn’t want all of them listening in.

I had a dream the other night,” he said. “Do you want to hear?”

Derrick stared at his feet dangling in the air. The river shuffled by. Small furry creatures rustled in the underbrush.

Me and you,” he continued. “we’re in a plane, and you’re flying. We’re over the coast of a tropical island. The water’s so blue it’s clear and we can see huge cities of coral just below the surface. You’re wearing a pilot’s uniform, a real one. ‘Want to try?’ you ask. I take the controls and I feel the heart of the plane. It’s like something alive, purring, telling us everything’s going to be all right. Don’t you want something like that?”

On the ground, the mother strained to hear. There was a brief quiet where Derrick might have said, “I’m scared.” Then, the father was holding his hand, guiding him down the tree. As the other fathers slapped him on the back saying “Job well done” and other things masculine and appreciative, the mother felt a surge of shame, and deeper than that, anger at Derrick for embarrassing her, at her husband for not helping him, at herself for stepping aside. She hurried back to the car.

In the bathroom that night, she stood behind her husband, watching him reflected as he brushed his teeth. She wanted to make some small gesture of forgiveness. “What did you say up there?”

The same thing you would have.” But he turned away from the mirror and wouldn’t let her see his face.


That night she awoke again. From the hallway came warbling music, so small and hesitant she couldn’t be sure it wasn’t in her imagination. Her husband was not in their bed. She followed the music into the hall, but it neither grew louder nor softened. Outside Derrick’s room, she pressed her ear to the door—nothing but the creaking of the wood, the hum of the boiler through the skeleton of the house. She turned the knob, but it wouldn’t budge. She kicked the door, making it shudder.

What’s going on here?” she demanded. But there was nothing but the far-off tick of a clock. She slid down the wall, collapsing on the floor. Tick-tick. Soon it was all she could hear.

It had been a bright Saturday in late winter, a cautious warmth to the air. She woke late, to the twang of a hammer on wood. She padded to the kitchen. She poured herself a cup of coffee and watched steam curl from the brim. She held the mug in both hands, feeling its heat creep up her arms. The cat leapt from the table to brush against her leg before finding its place in the shifting sun, where it yawned and closed its eyes.

She took her coffee and muffin out to the porch to let the sun soak into her bare feet. She didn’t drink in those days and she enjoyed the mornings. The shed was coming along smoothly, she decided, rafters and columns stamping the shape of a future enclosure. Her husband straddled a joist, bearing down with a drill. Derrick—up early the way he never was on school days—ran circles through the shed, squeezing through gaps in the wall. At one point he picked up a hammer and scaled a ladder until he was level with his father. He held out the hammer, but her husband waved it off. It was nice to see Derrick this way again, she thought, after the disappointments of last summer.

Derrick reversed down the ladder, leaping off halfway to land neatly on his feet. He wandered about, running his finger along the edge of a saw, kicking loose screws. He picked up a nail and squatted, writing something in the dirt. Then he looked up and she waved at him. He returned the wave and she went inside to practice piano.

The father, who had noticed the mother there and taken comfort in it, drove another nail home, enjoying the smell of new wood and the warmth of the sun on his back. Spring was coming and then he could lose himself out here, make something real. He’d tried to show this to Derrick, but the boy had never understood.

Hey dad,” Derrick called. He was halfway up the ladder, leaning forward. “I’m going to measure your angles. Watch.”

Be careful.” He fished another nail from the pack, bent low over the hammer’s arc. The vibration scooted the ladder to one side.

She was practicing her trills when she heard the small, strangled cry. A moment later, the screen banged shut. She ran into the kitchen to find her husband mashing buttons on the phone. He was shirtless and sweating. He met her gaze with wild eyes, seeming to see right through her.

He just…” he said. “I didn’t mean….”

She rushed outside, knowing what she would find, but pulled by some hysterical compulsion to see it, to really see. The first thing she came across were his feet, splayed awkwardly in the red Converses she’d bought him for his last birthday. One shoelace was untied. She wanted to tie it, but then she took a step forward and saw his head, twisted and limp on his neck. His arms were beneath him. She pulled him to her and breathed into his mouth. She was still doing this when the ambulance arrived.


A branch battering a window made her jump. She didn’t know how long she’d slept, or if she’d slept at all. The wind howled through the rooms of the house. She tried Derrick’s door again and this time it swung open, almost without her touching it. She hesitated, then stepped inside.

The bed looked slept in, the sheets in disarray. She searched for some familiar shape there—a friendly face, a continent—but there was nothing. Just the empty mattress, begging for his small weight. She remembered his breath as he slept, soft and easy. She’d sometimes sneak in at night and stand in the doorway, trying to imagine his dreams. She could almost hear him now, but it was all too distant, too far away. And it grew further every day.

A crash came from downstairs. She ran down the steps and found the front door banging in its hinges. Her husband stood on the lawn, facing the street, a heavy, square box in his hands. Wind furrowed his hair, tossed leaves in a winding, erratic ballet. There was a shiver in the air. She touched his shoulder, hesitated. He was working the joystick of a remote control, pulling and tapping it with his thumb. A sheet of lightning stamped the sky and she could see the plane as it dived between the tall, dark trees. She wanted to say something, anything.

Weather’s changing,” he said without turning, voice flat, as if this were the simplest of facts.

On Turning Thirty, by Raul Clement


“It’s impossible for a man to waste any time before thirty-five…” – James Michener, The Drifters

What you don’t do before thirty, you’ll never do.” – John Updike, from…?



The Pixar film Up presents itself as for children. It is animated; it features talking dogs, floating houses, and nefarious schemes.  But for adults it contains one of the most remarkable – and remarkably close-to-the-bone – opening sequences in recent movie history:

In the early part of the twentieth century, a young boy named Carl watches a newsreel about an explorer named Charles Muntz. Afterward, infatuated with Muntz and his trip to Paradise Falls, South America, Carl races up and down the streets near his home pretending to be Muntz. In a nearby abandoned house, he meets a girl named Ellie. She shares his obsession with Muntz and describes to him her dream of moving their clubhouse to Paradise Falls.

Cut to: Carl and Ellie’s marriage. As a sort of montage we see their entire married life – their clubhouse remodeled into their home; their jobs as balloon-maker and zookeeper respectively; a touching scene of a silhouetted Ellie in a hospital room, crying (she has either had a miscarriage or learned she is inferitle). In their living room is a shrine to Paradise Falls, and before this shrine is jar. As the couple grows older, they fill the jar with coins for their trip Paradise Falls, only to see it emptied again in times of financial crisis.

One day, when the couple is old, stooped and gray, Carl finally buys two plane tickets to Paradise Falls. He invites Ellie out for a picnic on their favorite hill in the park, where we have already seen them lying hand-in-hand at various ages, staring up at the clouds. Midway to the top of the hill, Ellie falls and doesn’t get up. She is ill. She is taken to the hospital, where she dies. They never make it to Paradise Falls.

It was John Lennon who most famously said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” If I had to choose one phrase to sum up the opening sequence of Up, this would be it. It’s not just that we put things off until it’s too late; it’s that the decisions we make get in the way of the reasons we make them. We go to law school to support our true passion; the law consumes so much of us that we don’t ever get around to pursuing that passion. Or else accidents happen: wives get pregnant; parents get sick; money we intended for other purposes is spent. Sometimes we just keep saying tomorrow until there is no tomorrow left.

As an opening to a major Hollywood production, and one for children at that, the beginning of Up is formally and thematically shocking. We expect our stories to start in media res, but this opening functions as back story, a prelude to the main event. But more than that, it is its bleakness that disarms us. The lack of resolution. Or at least tidy resolution – death resolves us all, of course. But while in the conventional movie, death comes with a speech or one last grand, redemptive gesture, here it comes in the middle of life, leaving many things undone. Words unspoken. Dreams unrealized.

We are disarmed not by the artfulness of the sequence but by a graceful artlessness we recognize as truth. It acts as a corrective to the too-neat narratives of Hollywood that force a calming order on life.



By the time you read this, I will be thirty years old. That’s 10,957 days, counting leap years. 262,968 hours, 15,778,080 minutes, 946,684,800 seconds. Etc. I break it down this way not because it’s an original way of looking at it, but to illustrate how meaningless such a measurement is. Divided into its smallest units, the number becomes as incomprehensible as records of the dead – days fallen, left behind.

Thirty years is, of course, thirty revolutions of the earth around the sun: this is what it generally means to us. Seasons change, holidays come and go, the ball in Time Square drops and we imagine a fresh start. And maybe there is something innate in such a cycle, something our bodies respond to in a way outside the understanding of science. Or maybe it’s just a convenient cultural marker, a way for us to talk about units of change.

Because that’s all time is: a measurement of change.

But does change always – for lack of a better word – change at the same rate? Anyone who has arrived at this number will tell you there are different ways of being thirty. Some people seem to have it all figured out: they are married, or taking the bar exam, or buying their first home. Others work at McDonalds, drink with their friends after work, perhaps move to another town when things get stagnant. Some don’t even make it to thirty. For everyone who has it figured out, there are probably ten who don’t; and those that claim they do are often just striking a confident pose.

What does it even mean to be thirty? What separates it from being twenty- nine years and three hundred and sixty-four days old? Nothing, scientifically. At least nothing that separates it from any other day tacked on– just another step in the slow decomposition of the body that starts at around twenty-five, I’m told.

But culturally, it does mean something. A lot.

Eighteen. Twenty-one. Thirty, forty, sixty-five. I have left out a couple, I’m sure, but these are the big ones – the birthdays that we are judged by. In this society, we don’t have true rites of passage, though we do have unofficial ones. At eighteen you are a man, generally expected to move out of your parent’s house. You can die at war, vote, smoke cigarettes and look at pornography. At twenty-one, you can drink. At thirty…

Ah, but there’s the crux. These first two ages are defined by privileges and their attendant responsibilities. What can you do at thirty that you can’t at twenty-nine? To the best of my reckoning, it’s not what you can do, but what others expect of you. What the pressure of their expectations can do to you.



For the past ten years or so I’ve lived in Greensboro, North Carolina. It’s a city of three hundred thousand, the third biggest in the state. There are two universities, three more colleges. Dozens of bars, plenty of coffee shops, a few used book stores. As a friend of mine puts it, it is a “great place to be in your early twenties, but not such a great place to be in your late twenties.”

This is because it is a college town – as you age, the people around you don’t. Or rather, they graduate, move on, are replaced by another group of undergrads. There is not much reason to stay beside inertia. There are not many jobs for recent graduates – it’s pretty much all bartending or tenure-track professorships. Greensboro is called the Gate City, and though it got this name because it acted as a train hub for much of the state, it has come to mean something different to the current residents: the city as a way station, as a place to catch your breath before diving into real life.

For this reason, those that stay here are generally failures in one way or another. Take, for example, a bar I’ll call the Pizzeria. On any given Friday night – in fact, on any given Monday afternoon – you can find the same five people hunched at the bar, deep in their cups. It’s tempting to judge these people – as, in fact, I now am – because frankly it’s a lot of fun. But more than that, it sets up a distance between you and them – insulates you from becoming one of their ilk. Because when you’re twenty-nine and it’s three o’ clock in the afternoon and you’re in the same bar you’ve been going to since you were allowed to drink (for the braver of us, even earlier than that) you are, to all outside appearances, one of them. A nobody, a failure. A townie. It is only in your mind that you are different.

One day, you tell yourself. One day I will write that novel I have been dreaming of. One day I will meet a nice girl and get married. One day I will leave this place. This is the insidious part of being a twenty-first century American: it’s not just that others judge you by what you have or have not achieved, it’s that you judge yourself. It gets so you don’t want to answer one of the most basic questions: “What have you been doing?” Because the answer, if not nothing, is at least nothing worth talking about. By which you mean: nothing that won’t diminish me in your eyes, and in doing so, in my own.

So you find ways to make yourself sound better, more promising than you are. These are not lies exactly, but a positive spin on reality. You become a PR man for your own life. “I am thinking about applying to grad school,” you say. Translation: I have looked up some schools online and dreamed about how nice it would be to attend one. Or: “I might move to New York. I have some good connections up there.” Translation: I know a few struggling actors.

Still, a young person now has certain freedoms, freedoms our parents gained us through years of costly and painful rebellion (or so the story goes – more likely it was just a gradual loosening of the belt that started generations before).  These freedoms are by and large negative ones: the freedom not to marry at eighteen, not to have three children by twenty-five, not to pick one job and stick with it until your pension kicks in. These are good freedoms – nothing is gained by committing to so much so early, except maybe the illusion of adulthood. But I also wonder if it isn’t part of the problem. You take away all restraints and there’s nothing left. You end up floating in air, untethered as Carl Frederickson’s house in Up. Except instead of floating toward Paradise Falls and a kind of redemption, you are drifting toward nothing at all.



The themes in the opening of Up are not particularly new. That they can be expressed in a single song lyric by one of our most universally loved musicians proves that. And nor was John Lennon the originator of that aphorism: a quick Wikipedia search shows that William Gaddis, Lily Tomlin, and even Reader’s Digest have been credited with the phrase.

Nor is Up the first work of fiction to dramatize it. One of the great – and until recently, greatly neglected – twentieth-century American novelists, Richard Yates, made dashed hopes the subject of his most affecting fictions. The short story “Oh Joseph, I’m So Tired” deals with a talentless sculptor and mother of two who cannot square the life she dreams of leading with the one she ends up leading. This character, probably based on Yates’s own mother, appears in several others works, including the novels The Easter Parade and A Special Providence. As the title of the latter indicates – and this could be the title of any of Yates’s books – she is the subject of a biting authorial irony, as well as a source of pity and frustration for the people around her.

But mothers are not the only ones to see their hopes dashed. Shattered illusions are Yates’s great theme, and nowhere does he treat them more completely and devastatingly than in his acknowledged masterpiece, Revolutionary Road. Set in the early 1960s, it tells the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a couple who move to suburbia, but consider themselves different from the bland conservatism that threatens to swallow them. April has dreams of acting, while Frank has a desire to do something vaguely artistic; in the meantime, Frank goes to work at the same company his father did and April becomes a housewife. In despair over their failing marriage, they hatch a plan to move to Paris: April will work and Frank will take the time to figure out his “purpose.” But April becomes pregnant and Frank, who was beginning to have doubts about the plan, receives a lucrative job offer. April, desperate not to lose what she sees as their last chance at happiness, administers a self-abortion and dies. Frank is left shattered and empty.

This is Up if the movie ended after the first fifteen minutes – and if Carl and Ellie, and not life’s vagaries, were responsible for the failure to live out their dreams. In Up, Carl is redeemed by his friendship with Russell – a Wilderness Scout who is a younger version of himself – and a belated journey to Paradise Falls, where he learns that the life you dream of leading is not always the one you’re supposed to lead. There is no such redemption for Frank Wheeler: by foolishly clinging to his dreams he destroys the possibility of ever realizing them.

So what is Yates’s solution then? Submit to our bland fate? Apparently not: the reason we identify with the Wheelers is that they are the only characters in the novel who still have the ability to dream. If we give up our dreams, then we are like Mr. Givings, the husband of the Wheelers’ real estate agent. Tired of his wife’s constant gossiping, he turns off his hearing aid so as not to listen to her. This is the novel’s final image: a woman’s lips moving soundlessly, a man engulfed in his own silent world.



My parents divorced when I was two years old. I went to live with my mother. While I was too young to have been traumatized by the event – and the word “trauma” should probably be reserved for events like rape and genocide – I do remember the subsequent years of fatherly neglect. I would wait by the door for him to pick me up; he was hours, sometimes days, late. I don’t remember being upset by this, either – though I do remember the elation when he did arrive – but it must have bothered me on some level, because we still have a hard time interacting.

We’ve only recently begun to repair our relationship. I’ve spent a chunk of the last two summers with him in the small town of Tarboro, North Carolina, helping him renovate his Queen Anne-style home. He pays me in food and lodging and whatever cash I need.  The work needs to be done – and he would have to pay a skilled laborer more – but mostly it’s an excuse for us to hang out.

We talk about our lives, which have taken remarkably similar paths in some ways and have diverged in others. Like me, he took most of his twenties to finish his undergrad (I still have not quite done that). Like me, he spent most of that time flitting from city to city, traveling around Latin America, and working low-paying, unskilled jobs. But he also married my mother when he was twenty-two and had me he was twenty-five – two experiences I can’t imagine going through now, let alone at that age. I can’t help but think that if he had waited he might have been a better father: the proof is that I have two happy, well-adjusted half-brothers, Graham and Jacob, and that he and my step-mother have no intention of divorce. The proof is that he is here for me, finally, now.

It was he who shared with me the Michener quote that is one of the epigraphs of this piece. We were talking about Up, which he had seen with Graham and Jacob when it was in the theater. Their uncle, my father’s brother-in-law, was with them. During the opening sequence, he kept leaning across the aisle and pretending to smack Jacob in the head.

I thought you said this was a funny movie,” he would say.

He was playing around, but there’s some truth there, too. For adults, the opening of this movie registers as a painful recognition: we don’t end up doing most of the things we plan to do. I told my father how, now that I was approaching thirty, I could see the sad truth of this idea.

And that’s when he quoted, or misquoted, Michener to me. “You know Michener said it was impossible for a man to waste any time before thirty,” he said. “So I guess you’ve still got… what? A month?”

But Updike said ‘What you don’t do before thirty, you’ll never do,’” I shot back.

So which is it? And are the two even mutually exclusive? The Michener quote is from a novel about twenty-somethings bumming around Europe, a book that begins with the sentence “Youth is truth.” As such, it embodies the romantic idea that the purpose of youth is not to accomplish anything, but to accumulate experience. That this is, in a way, its own accomplishment.

While I couldn’t find the source of the Updike quote – too many random bits of data floating around in my thirty-year-old skull – I suspect it is from one of the Rabbit novels. Perhaps Rabbit thinks it about himself, as a way of dismissing the whimsy of his own dreams. Or perhaps it is in Rabbit is Rich, and he thinks it about his son Nelson, as a way of dismissing the whimsy of youth. Either way, the meaning is the same – something akin to “strike while the iron is hot.” That this phrase should be uttered by a writer who was printed in the New Yorker while still in college, who published his first novel at twenty-five and his first masterpiece just a few years later, is hardly surprising. It was probably this attitude that allowed him to accomplish such things.

But maybe these two statements can be squared. Maybe the time we spend doing “nothing” can be seen as a way of doing something. We might not publish (or even complete) a novel at twenty-five, but we might make the mistakes and accumulate the experiences which allow us to publish that novel later. And maybe this is what Michener really means: that youth is a time of preparation, that as long as a person spends their formative years, well, being formed, then they are not wasted. If so, it’s not what a person doesn’t do before thirty that they’ll never do, but what a person doesn’t get ready to do.  Hence, Michener and Updike are not expressing opposite sentiments but two shades of the same optimism.

Or maybe this is a last lingering bit of my youthful romanticism. Maybe it’s an elaborate justification for all the time I’ve wasted. Can’t it be these things and also be true?



Another book turned movie, The Natural, offers us the solution that Yates’s relentlessly bleak Revolutionary Road refuses. Like Up, it focuses on what we do after our dreams are shattered. Roy Hobbs is a preternaturally gifted baseball player who has his career cut short because of a senseless crime. As he lies in a hospital bed, lamenting the choices he made, he receives the following piece of advice from his one-time lover, Iris.

You know, I always thought we had two lives,” she says.

How…what do you mean?” Roy asks.

The life we learn with and the life we live with after that.”

The meaning is clear: Roy is still a young man. There is a lot of life ahead of him – he can lead it with the knowledge he has gained from his past mistakes. He doesn’t have to wait until he is old and alone like Carl for redemption.

I, for one, look forward to a decade of no more wasted time.  Of course, according to Michener – the true version of the quote, not the one my father misremembered – I’ve got five more years.