This was not long ago: I was back home, in Massachusetts, in the house I grew up in, sitting in the same kitchen I’d sat in my entire childhood and adolescence, eating . . . I have no idea what I was eating. Probably peanut butter. Random refrigerator finds dipped in peanut butter. It was very late, close to two in the morning. My mother was asleep. My father was asleep. I’d just come from work, if you could call it “work,” because I had been about fifteen minutes away, covering the World Series as a sports columnist, which is about as stupid lucky a job as you can have, the kind of job that makes you think one day a stern-faced man with a clipboard is going to show up and say, There was a terrible mistake. This isn’t your job. You’re supposed to be managing a karaoke bar for dogs. In the morning I had to fly back to New York City, and I knew that upon waking, I would bicker with my dad about what time we needed to leave the house. This was always a comical argument, our version of Abbott and Costello. With no traffic, you can get from our house to the airport in a half hour. I believe leaving ninety minutes in advance is reasonable. My father preferred to leave in 1987.
In the darkness the kitchen looked so small. Let me be the ten thousandth person to point out that the house you grew up in does not resemble the house you visit as an adult. Its scale is lost, its proportions change, and the artifacts of your childhood have been rearranged or have vanished altogether. That woolly couch, the one with the painful buttons on the back . . . where did that couch go? New discoveries reveal exotic, previously unknown details about your parents. There is truffle oil in the cabinet. Truffle oil. When did Mom and Dad start liking truffle oil? It’s like finding a koala bear pawing around in the garage.
I went upstairs to my room, which hadn’t been my room for more than two decades, and really was never fully mine, because for most of my childhood I shared it with my brother and a series of uncooperative cats. Privacy existed only in my thoughts. I knew this room to be the room where I became myself, or had fantasies of future selves that would never happen. This is the room where I wanted to be Larry Bird. Where I wanted to be Prince. Where I wanted to be Sting. (Yes, I wanted to be Sting. I’ll come down and fight you right now.) It was the room where homework was done, or homework was not done, where girls were called and the fathers of girls were hung up on. This was the room where I found out a kid I knew from school, a teammate, had been killed in a car accident, the first moment I truly felt impermanent. This was the room where I learned I’d gotten rejected by a college. This was the room where I got rejected by another college. Then another college. I got rejected by a lot of colleges.
Things improved. I left this room and snuck into a school (thank you, sleepy admissions officer at the University of Wisconsin–Madison!) and found a job and experienced love and heartbreak and finally met the woman I would marry, Bessie. I’d gotten sick with cancer and recovered to the point that I’d forgotten it happened. I’d been blessed to get work that let me fly around the world and meet people I’d never dreamed of meeting and a handful of schnooks I hoped never to meet again. I’d been dispatched to Super Bowls, Summer and Winter Olympics, World Cups, and the snooty-pants golf Masters. If you’re not impressed by any of that, I once saw a photograph of a bird on top of a mouse on top of a cat on top of a dog.
I sat awake in that room and all of that backstory rushed over me. I had been so happy and so unhappy here. But in the moment I mostly felt fortunate, to have lived here, in this house, in this town, with this family and these parents, and tried to think of all the things that had influenced me along the way. Sometimes it’s easier just to believe that life’s path is chance, a fluke of randomness, and yet it’s not really random, not when you think about what you are and what you wanted to be and all the miles in between. And I thought about all the people who had imparted advice to me—good advice, bad advice, in and outside my family. I’d had plenty of mentors—mentors I sought, ones I didn’t. Good bosses, jerk bosses. Great coaches, ambivalent coaches. You think you are on your own, but you really are not. Nobody figures it out alone.
I have my own children now. As I write this, my son, Jesse, is two years old; my daughter, Josie, is a happy, hungry newborn. The first thing they teach you about parenting is that it’s a surrender of control. Okay: the first thing they teach you is to take that diaper immediately out of your house and bury it in a nine-foot hole as fast as possible. But the second thing they teach you is about the surrender of control. And this gives parenting a kind of breathless feeling, frightening and exhilarating, especially if you are someone who thrives on schedule, arrangement, and punctuality. A child does not adhere to any kind of preexisting arrangement. Abandoning this expectation can be the greatest liberation of your life.
Like nothing else, parenthood makes you realize, sharply, that you are now in the position of the advice giver. You are the role model, the example, whether you are ready or worthy or not. It goes without saying that the best example is the example quietly set, but this is not always convenient, or realistic, as we are all prone to lapses and embarrassing behavior and tantrums of our own, especially between 4:00 and 6:30 p.m. on the expressway—don’t tell me that eighteen-wheeler full of chickens has run out of gas. We are not always our best selves. And yet here we are, at the wheel, assigned with the task of shaping a real-life human or humans. And with the slightly nauseating rush of that assignment comes an appreciation for all the advice you’ve ever received before, especially from your own parents. Like you, they weren’t perfect. But they probably did the best they could.
I didn’t know it at the time—none of us did—but a few months after this visit, my father would become very sick. Our lives would change; all our energy was dedicated to improving whatever time he had left. A high school science teacher, my father was full of wonderment about how the world worked—he was the kind of person who could spend an hour explaining the Northern Lights, or the inner workings of a toaster oven. Suddenly his world shrank. For the coming year, life would not be about the big play, the grand gesture, or long-term plans. The focus would be on creating smaller, perfect moments that brought us all temporary relief and happiness.
The advice in this book is both practical and ridiculous. It is neither perfect nor universal. A few years back I began writing advice “Rules” columns for the Wall Street Journal—Rules of Thanksgiving Family Touch Football, Rules of the Gym, Rules of the Office Holiday Party. The idea was to make a little fun of the Cult of Advice, the absurd surety of know-it-all experts and, of course, our blossoming era of inane Internet lists (29 WAYS TO WATCH A SUNSET WITH YOUR PONY!). Ours is a culture that is always telling people what to do, but what do we really know? We’re all still learning. Everyone’s flawed. Everybody drops their ice cream on the floor, hopes nobody saw it, picks it up, and eats it. Please tell me that’s not just me.
You can read this book in order or out of order. You can read it on the train, the plane, the beach, or in the bathroom. Go ahead, I don’t care if you put it in the bathroom. Put it right next to the can, atop that 1991 copy of the Sporting News and that giant book about architecture that no one’s ever opened.
The assembled madness here is the product of many life mistakes, made worthwhile by a handful of those little victories.
When I first dreamed about writing a book, this was not the book I dreamed of writing. I imagined a distinguished novel, thick as a curbstone, sold in stores where the clerks were wild-haired and prickly and didn’t need a keyboard to tell you that the Pynchon was around the corner, sharp left, behind the vegan cookbooks and the guy pretending to read Sartre but really reading that book about waterskiing kittens who solve mysteries. My book would be the kind of book that would be hard for me to write and hard for you to read. It would be well reviewed to the point that authors I didn’t know became envious and authors I did know became inconsolable. I would read my book aloud at colleges and on public radio stations, and if I could smoke a pipe, I would smoke a pipe. I would probably wear a vest. A tweed vest. There would be book parties with terrible wine and someone at the end would force you to buy a copy. I would sign your copy. My signature would be unrecognizable. You would wonder if that was a signature or if an insect had been crushed between the pages. The book I dreamed of writing would not make me rich, but it would make me soulful, beloved, cultishly popular. I would not be famous (eww) but respectfully known (far preferable). I would give intense, rambling interviews to impressionable students in which I would speak about “craft” and my isolated writing jags at my cabin in Vermont, even though I do not own a cabin in Vermont. Once in a while I would be recognized on a subway or at a food cooperative and I would blush, because I did it: I wrote the book I dreamed I would write.
This is my way of explaining I didn’t wind up ghostwriting Jessica Simpson’s autobiography.
This is not Jessica Simpson’s autobiography. I am sorry. This is a rule book. There have been rule books before—stacks upon stacks of them—but this book is unlike any other rule book you have ever read. It will not make you rich in twenty-four hours, or even seventy-two hours. It will not cause you to lose eighty pounds in a week. This book has no abdominal exercises. I have been doing abdominal exercises for most of my adult life, and my abdomen looks like it’s always looked. It looks like flan. Syrupy flan. So we can just limit those expectations. This book does not offer a crash diet or a plan for maximizing your best self. I don’t know a thing about your best self. It may be embarrassing. Your best self might be sprinkling peanut M&M’s onto rest-stop pizza as we speak. This book is not a four-hour career plan or a four-hour workout or four-hour anything. I appreciate a good hustle, but there are only two things in life that take four hours: the drive between Philadelphia and Syracuse, and baking and eating two entire trays of brownies by yourself.
I cannot promise that this book is a road map to success. I would, however, like for it to make you laugh. Maybe think. I hope this book can become your pal. You know those scenes in movies in which the protagonist has a chance encounter—usually on a train, or in a Greyhound station at 3:20 a.m.—with a stranger who offers unsolicited wisdom about the world? The stranger is kindly. He has wild eyebrows, and wears a hat with a hole in it. The stranger has lived things. Lost things. The stranger knows that love really matters. The stranger also knows that you should never serve soup at a dinner party. This book is that stranger. This book has wisdom both weighty and banal, and you don’t have to wait in a Greyhound station at 3:20 a.m.
If by chance you are in a Greyhound station at 3:20 a.m., the bus to Pensacola leaves in three minutes.
Again, seriously: don’t serve soup at a dinner party. Not as an entrée, at least. No matter how good it is, soup is always, you know, soup. You serve dinner soup to your family when two of you have the mumps. Serving soup as an entrée to guests is like showing up to collect an Oscar in flip-flops and a bathrobe.
Some of the advice in this book is big advice. Some of the advice is very detailed, specific to the point of making you uncomfortable. It favors the practical. I don’t think we get anywhere with whimsical advice, the kind of airy nonsense that people say at graduation speeches. Take a year off to learn the tambourine. Live in a treehouse! Fly a kite with a talking dolphin! Great. Maybe the tambourine and the kite-flying talking dolphin can help you pay back $120,000 in student loans.
I prefer specific advice. I have long been obsessed with reading my horoscope, and everyone knows that there are two types of horoscopes. The first kind is your classic, imprecise, crowd-pleasing horoscope designed to appeal to as many people as possible. A kind act today will change your outlook. A rich soul measures fortune in friendship. Those are useless and horrible. You can use those horoscopes for the hamster cage.
The other kind of horoscope is specific and spooky in detail. It does not mess around with vagaries. It says stuff like Tomorrow do not wear green socks. Or, In the afternoon you will be visited by a middle-aged man with a falcon on his shoulder, who will try to sell you a broken Camaro. This is unnerving advice. Specificity is intimacy, of course. The best kind of horoscope makes you look over your shoulder. This is the kind of advice I wish to offer you.
Tomorrow do not wear green socks.
In my day job, I spend a lot of time following professional sports, and if you follow professional sports, you learn a few things that might not be apparent on TV. The first thing you learn is that professional sports are professional. I know that sounds dumb and obvious, but it’s the cleanest way to put it. It’s a job. If you’re a pro athlete, you’re not supposed to describe your job as a job, because you are doing something that most people would do for free, unless, of course, they were good enough to do it for $15 million, in which case they would never do it for free.