My Dad had a thing for geniuses. He was an odd mixture of intelligence, adolescence, social awkwardness and confidence. One thing for sure, he admired the intellectual and emotional achievements of geniuses long past such as Mozart, Beethoven, Fermat, Poincaré. Those he admired who lived contemporaneously with him included Einstein, Norbert Wiener and von Neumann, with whom he actually had a conversation. Dad’s taste in music and art harkened back to those artists in the 19th century and before. I don’t remember what his opinion of the impressionists was, but I know he didn’t care for (or understand) Picasso and the abstract art that emerged in the early 20th century. Looking back, I think Dad’s had an affinity for mathematics because it made sense; if one understood the rules, one could get results. His enjoyment of art was sensual; if it didn’t make visual sense, he didn’t care for it.
Dad had great hopes for his family before my older brother, Michael, was born. He told me about the life of Norbert Wiener, his accomplishments in starting the field of cybernetics, and his survival of the rigid_program of intellectual development imposed upon him by his father. The story of Boris Sidis’s son, who was also raised in a rigid intellectual regimen, was the bookend to the Wiener story. William James Sidis (named after William James, teacher of the elder Sidis, a psychiatrist, psychologist and philosopher of_education) failed to thrive as a person. Although he entered Harvard at 11 years of age, he had a very unhappy life.
My father’s plans to find a middle ground with his own child were dashed when his first child arrived. The fact that my older brother was profoundly retarded, autistic and nonverbal was a shock. Dad never had a chance to teach him anything or imbue any of his love for life, in Mike.
Before my little brother had my niece and nephew, I asked Dad to write a piece about what he thought it would be like to be a grandfather. This isn’t as much of a philosophical leap as Thomas Nagel’s famous question, What Is It Like To Be A Bat? But I was interested in what Dad had to say. In answer to my question, Dad wrote me nine pages of his thoughts. The final page of his answer is below. It shows development of his thinking through the years. Unfortunately, his social awkwardness did not work in his favor when his grandchildren came along. I don’t know if his musings of grandfatherhood were realized.