Message from My Uncle Peterby Williams Cole
First published in The Brooklyn Rail, May 2004
have a relic of sorts that I hold dear. It’s a green foam beer cozy, worn thin from carrying hundreds of bottles of Michelob. Across it, in faded red letters, is the phrase “No Excuses!” The cozy belongs to my Uncle Peter, my mom’s brother. I swiped it the last time I saw him.
Everyone has that one relative who is somewhat of a mystery. A person you hold in some tier of esteem that is perhaps a mixture of envy, dread, and curiosity. For me, it’s Uncle Peter. I’ve only really met him three or four times that I can remember. His life and history is formed for me from bits and pieces of awry legend, the impressions from our few meetings, and the letters and answering machine messages that come to my mother once a year or so. It’s through these few experiences that I’ve formed a picture of him, like you might for an actor you’ve seen in a bunch of movies, read about, and maybe even met once or twice.
My Uncle Peter is a hippie-jock, surfer, sex-hound. Though raised in New Jersey, he has always been chronically beach and sun-destined. He’s a classic old-school surfer-swinger: tall, fit, and handsome. I’ve gleaned what I can about his life. I know he drove around the West Coast in the 1970’s in a VW bus with a true California blond, and soon down to Mexico to be one of the first gringos to surf at Puerto Escondido. Then he ended up in southern Florida as the Head of Lifeguards at Fort Lauderdale Beach.
In Lauderdale he taught lots of private tennis lessons, wore tight flared pants and open shirts replete with a thick necklace, participated in group sex, surfed, and saved scores of inept tourists from the sea. Then he was able to retire to a premier surfing spot in Costa Rica at 56, where they gave him citizenship because he had a nice pension.
In the last letter I remember getting from Uncle Peter, he described how he surfs early every morning, works out, smokes pot, watches the sunset, reads, and then goes to sleep. And he does this every day.
I remember him as kind of a charming bastard, but also an adrenaline fiend who’ll rile you up, an anti-intellectual, the kind of guy you can party with for a night but the next day you’ll find him to be a cynical, uninformed pain in the ass. Put another way, he lives a distinctly anti-New York City kind of life, at least according to what is conventionally outlined on the pages of the New Yorker, New York Review of Books, Harper’s, and a handful of other publications. Where is his ambition to write—or even just to think? Is there any tendency to contribute to the cloudy idea of culture? As far as I can tell he has no weighty ideals of changing society or educating others about the ills and inequalities of the world. Why didn’t he turn the relative luck he had into trying to work toward the collective good?
A few weeks ago my mother played me a message he left for her. As usual, she hadn’t heard from him for an extended period of time. The message was short. He began by referring to my mother’s ability to get Social Security in the past year: “It’s come to my attention that you’ve been living off the government for a year. King George W is dismayed because he wants the money to give to all his rich friends. But I’m sure you can get a job as a maid somewhere through all your connections.
“Also, on this busy full moon weekend,” Peter continued, “we’ve got a beach clean up and the first two pieces I picked up I dedicated to you in a positive manner. I also found out that John Kerry is a graduate of St. Paul’s. I have to ponder the deeper meaning of that. Everything is very smooth and magic with me. Hope the same is true for you.”
Uncle Peter had gone to St. Paul’s as well, but he left after a couple of years to go on the journey where, in case you forgot, he ended up with a full pension on a beautiful surfing beach in Costa Rica, smoking pot, working out, and reading. He is now over 60 and inferred in one letter that he would “slip off” the board into the ocean before he let his body grow too old to surf. His body is his temple. He didn’t go the family route. Last time I saw him he was dating someone in her twenties. But I was intrigued that in this message the few observations he left were essentially, well, political. Almost like something I’d leave on someone’s answering machine.
Was this just a case of small talk? After all, in many places politics is only second to the weather in making conversation. But could it be that, even with such a life as his—with its endless pursuit in the Dionysian, pleasure-seeking vein, far away on such a carefree beach—that Uncle Peter, just maybe, now feels the need to follow politics as well?
In many places around the world the political is a life or death thing. Sometimes, it’s contradictory: you may die if you follow politics too carefully without minding your own business, but you may also die if you don’t try to change politics in order to survive. But the American model, which is one that much of the rest of the world seems to be emulating, separates politics from the day-to-day—or at least makes political questions seem simplistic, which is something that, by any measure, they are not.
On one level, we all want to be safe, eat well, and be able to loll about on beaches, in the woods, or in shopping malls. Yet could it be that Uncle Peter might get as bored and restless lying on the beach, surfing, working out, and smoking pot as I would get after a while? Does he, in some fleeting moment looking over the burning orange and red hues of a sunset, palm fronds swaying in the warm breeze, sand between his toes, ever feel any of the envy for my life that I do for his?
Does he even think about his nephew? Does he think about me passing thousands upon thousands of people weekly, sifting through daily political events, or writing essays for the Rail reflecting on his daily life?
We are all different, to be sure, but, as Aristotle said, we are political animals. But what is the active draw to politics? Why does it still seem like you’re in a minority if you imbue great importance to being critical of power? Are most people too disillusioned, too concerned with getting by and/or simply enjoying the fruits of a middle-class consumer society? Is being political passé, something only reserved for those spitting with righteousness?
I find that most people, including Uncle Peter, are drawn to politics in some way like moths to a candle. Some ash out quickly; others circle and circle; others make their way slowly. It’s a pull as basic as friendship, as fundamental as learning, as primal as power. Did Uncle Peter come across something that led him to believe "King George W" wants money for his friends? Or, perhaps, it’s just an instinct, one that I believe is irrepressible.
Still, I’ve got to give it to you, Uncle Peter, your pursuit of pleasure—for a faraway beach—may be right. It’s easier to be cynical. Up here, the machine often seems to have its own course. Life is too short and if one relies on politics for pleasure, something might be very wrong. Here in the "new" New York, where the streets lit up with cell phones look like the phosphorous generated by a luxury ocean liner cutting through the dark sea, hope easily can seem lost. Near Times Square there once were bars chock full of smoky-blue air and the lingering words of scrappy artists, poets, and radicals. Now there are malls and throngs of clueless tourists. They go to chain restaurants and believe that Republicans cleaned up New York City just for them.
Far from the mellow, magic sun is a place where wars and lies and money all combine. And there is a struggle that is increasingly urgent, although urgency is all relative depending on the particular spot of dirt you occupy on the hill or in the valley of the world.
Uncle Peter, I’ve got an idea that may clarify a lot for both of us. Let’s switch places for a bit. I’ll give you a spot connected to common thoughts, the common dreams, some edgy pulse of at least a few that band loosely together here in the Big City. You can let me live out that surfer, hippie, sex-hound part of me. I’d understand if you don’t want to. If not, would you at least consider saving me a patch of warm sand, a stoked bowl, some free weights, and a pile of good books?
For my part, I might even bring you back your beloved beer cozy. I’ll bring it back, though, with a different meaning of “no excuses,” one that I’ll be somewhat righteous about. After a couple of weeks of lying about, surfing, and smoking pot I’ll do what I can’t help doing and begin questioning everything from the fate of Costa Rica’s indigenous population to the background of that ex-CIA guy you know. In short, as we get to know each other, it’ll be my duty to be a pain in your ass.