So…everyone needs a crazy uncle in their life, and if you happen to find yourself without one—your parents had no brothers, for instance—I urge you to improvise.
My substitute was Crazy Uncle Gerry (his name for himself, not my doing), and he wasn’t extraordinary in any conventional way, but he did have a unique approach to problem solving that encompassed both a complete lack of melodrama and a visceral intolerance for hyperbole. Which made him, simultaneously, an incredible resource and a remarkable source of frustration.
As time wore on, however, I came to appreciate his particular brand of wisdom and would often seek out his guidance. When I was contemplating doing some commodities trading, for example, I figured it couldn’t hurt to run the idea past him. I cornered him at a family gathering (not my family…we weren’t related), and while he fiddled with a toothpick, I outlined the scheme that would (inevitably, of course) result in me making a pile of money with minimal effort.
When I finished, he lowered the toothpick and said, “You know there are only two ways to create value.”
I nodded to say, of course, and then waited for him to tell me what they were, since I didn’t actually have a clue.
“Build it,” he said. “Or exploit it.”
“Well, I’m building,” I said. “Obviously.”
“Did you do your own analysis? Test your own algorithms?”
Considering I barely knew what an algorithm was, I could only shake my head. “I don’t need to. The system I’m buying has—”
“And the guy selling this system…” He used the same inflection as a child pointing at a worm. “What are you to him?”
“A customer?” I answered, despite knowing full well it was a trick question.
“You’re a brick in his pyramid.”
I left the commodities markets alone.
Then there was the time I wanted his career advice. ‘Career’ is probably a bigger word than the situation warranted considering it was a student summer job, but I was miserable and not exactly drowning in options.
“I’m trapped,” I said.
He handed me a metal contraption. “You’re no more trapped than that ring is.”
It was a puzzle linking a ring with a second shape that resembled the top of a pineapple and—presumably—was meant to come apart. I wrestled with the stupid thing for three days before smacking it on the table and declaring, “It’s impossible.”
He said nothing as he twisted the two pieces at precise angles and removed the ring without a smidge of tension. He handed the pieces back to me. “It’s your perspective that’s trapped.”
Anyway, that’s the kind of person he was. And he remained that way even towards the end when he laid semi-conscious in a care facility.
One time, as I was about to enter the room to visit him, I was halted by a woman’s voice.
“I guess what I’m saying is…my life is over.”
I glanced around the curtain and saw a nurse sitting beside the bed, flailing her hands with a confessional flair as though she was gossiping with a girlfriend.
I stepped back from the curtain, preserving her privacy. Kind of. By that point, it was a scene I’d become accustomed to. It seemed my uncle’s silent disposition had made him a confidante for the nurses.
“Steve was found guilty,” she continued. “We’re gonna have to declare bankruptcy. Stupid asshole. I keep playing ‘what if.’ What if he just hadn’t been drinking that night? What if he just hadn’t gotten behind the wheel?”
I stood statue-still, embarrassed now that I’d remained in the room. Her problems were bigger than my paltry desire to ask him if I should change my major.
She waited for a while, but my uncle was silent. That wasn’t unusual. His maxims had become somewhat erratic, in both timing and content.
I heard her sigh. “Nothing for me today, huh?”
Eventually, there was some shuffling as, I guessed, she returned to whatever it is nurses do that keep quasi-conscious oracles alive.
The curtain flung back with a zing. I spun around quickly, trying to make it look like I’d entered the room right that minute and not been standing there the whole time, scavenging through her misery like a raccoon. But she was too distracted to notice, jotting something in his chart as she passed me by.
After she left, Uncle Gerry released a sputtery cough and in a hazy whisper said, “What if he did you a favour?”
I glanced back at the door, but she was definitely gone. I was relieved she missed his response; doubtful it would have brought her the comfort she sought. Somewhere deep down there would have been perfect reasoning behind his words—there always was—and in time, she probably would have understood what it was. But meanwhile, it seemed to me, maybe not every puzzle needed to be untangled.