“Hey Uncle Mark,” I said.
“Hello Snag,” he said, his attention focused on threading a reel-to-reel tape, part of the music collection I envied even if our tastes didn’t exactly overlap. “How’ve you been?”
“Fine,” I replied. “Looking forward to finishing high school next May.”
“Where’s your mother?” he asked, looking around for his sister-in-law. Along with the rest of our family, we had just arrived from Minneapolis for one of our visits.
“She and Aunt Blanche are in the kitchen bossing each other around,” I said. He snickered.
“So, what are your plans once you get to college?” he asked.
“Not sure,” I said. “I haven’t really thought about it.”
He raised his eyebrows at a concept he hadn’t been familiar with for quite some time, if ever. “You haven’t really thought about it?”
“Um, no, not really,” I said. Now I was looking around for my mother.
“What have you been doing instead of thinking about it?”
“Reading?” I suggested.
“Reading. What have you been reading?”
Mostly old issues of National Lampoon, but I wasn’t going to admit that. Fortunately, my mother walked in and interrupted us.
“How are you, Mark?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” he said. “I was talking with Snag. He said he’s been reading.”
My mother looked at me. “That’s what he said, did he?”
Thanks Mom, throw me under the bus. “I have been reading,” I said. “Philosophy.”
“Philosophy,” said Mark. “That’s an excellent way to spend your time. And what philosophers have you been reading.”
“I like the existentialists,” I said.
“Of course you do,” he replied. “You’re 17 years old. Which ones?”
“Camus. Kafka, Kierkegaard.”
I must have come close to correctly classifying them and pronouncing their names, because he nodded.
“What do you like about them?” he asked.
For God’s sake, I thought. Why did I open my big mouth?
“There’s no meaning?” I guessed.
“What does that mean?” he asked.
Why am I here? I thought. I could be home playing foosball and trying to talk to girls.
I blurted out, “It’s like Kierkegaard said – ‘I feel as a chessman must when the opponent says of it, “that piece cannot be moved.”’
He looked at me, impressed, in a sad way, as though I was a dog that had somehow memorized a Zen koan.
“What else have you been reading?” he asked.
Relieved to be leaving the existentialists behind, I offered, “I’ve been reading a bunch of stuff by this woman philosopher I like.”
“Ayn Rand,” I said.
He flinched, visibly. “Who?” he asked.
“Ayn Rand,” I repeated. “She’s got some really interesting ideas.”
“That’s true enough,” he said. “If you can call them ‘ideas.’”
I’d just finished Atlas Shrugged, and like many a young man before me, was besotted. “Don’t you think she makes some good points about people taking responsibility for themselves?”
“But when she talks about the fact that A is A, you have to admit that makes a lot of sense.”
“No,” he said. “No, I don’t. Because it doesn’t.” He glanced at my mother. “Do you approve of this?”
“As if that would make a difference?” she asked, reasonably enough. She and I had already had this argument. Several times.
He turned back to me.
“Do you remember when I taught you to play 52 Card Pickup?”
“Yes,” I said. Who could forget? I’d been 6 years old. He’d asked me to play, I’d said yes, he thrown a deck of cards in the air and told me to pick them up. I cried and he got scolded by my mother and his wife. It was a safe bet neither of us had ever completely recovered.
“I was trying to teach you to not be gullible,” he said.
“After all these years, that's your best excuse?” asked my mother. He ignored her.
“Now you’re letting a crackpot play 52 Card Pickup with your moral philosophy,” he said.
I stared at him like a dog who had forgotten its koan.
He shook his head in exasperation and walked out of the room. He returned a few minutes later with his book, Generalization in Ethics.
“Here,” he said, handing it to me. “Read it and then we’ll have this conversation.”
In the years since, I did read it, mostly in bits and pieces. We talked about it a few times, but never in depth. There were always other people around or dinner was being served or my own kids were interrupting us. I didn’t, and don’t, understand everything he wrote or everything he thought or everything he taught. I do understand that he made me smarter, and that he did the same for others, and that he made the world a better place. I'll miss him.