Sunday, June 17, 2007

King Ralph

Had my father and stepmother to the house for a Father's Day barbecue today. Of course, I'd forgotten my father's birthday back in February, and now that I think on it, my father quietly turned 65 this year. And since Ralph Kopperman does almost nothing quietly - he does love to have his opinion known - it's interesting that he allows his birthday and all markings of his passage to go by unnoticed.

And he's done his level best to discourage celebrating for him over the years. The way he does this primarily is by being impossible to shop for.

Firstly, at his core is the belief that spending money on anything - especially him - is a moral wrong on the order of genocide. Which means that the nicer the gift is, the less he'll like it. But pick him up a multi-pack of 3M Post-It notes on sale from Office Depot and he'll be thrilled. Never mind that he doesn't use Post-Its. It's the lack of spending that counts.

Secondly, if you do really put thought into it, he almost always comes away - what? I'd say 'insulted,' but he's a hard man to insult. (Believe me, I've tried very hard over the years, and I'd swear he's made out of 100% duck's back, given how verbal assaults roll right off him. 'Ungrateful' also isn't quite right, because if you're buying gifts just so that others will appreciate you, maybe you need to take that gift money and spend it on a good therapist, instead.

Is there a word in English for the perturbed state that comes from a gift that someone clearly spent a lot of time selecting, but you regard as a waste of money and a needless replacement for that other thing you bought in 1972 that still works just fine, provided you stand well back when you pull the cord that starts it? Probably not. But I can tell you the word that describes the person who bought the gift: exhausted.

But my father is a man well-worth celebrating. He's kind, generous, brilliant, ethical, and storied. Anyone who knows him only slightly might miss the brilliance, but this is a man who's lived in his head and made that life valuable enough to send five kids to college. This is a man who got a perfect SAT score, graduated from Columbia in three years, and did Grad School at M.I.T. A man who tired of his first discipline, Logic, and switched to Topology after fifteen years teaching and publishing. A man with terrible handwriting who, nevertheless, can make enough sense out of the endless scribbled notes (on back of envelopes, receipts, any paper that's handy) to write complete papers on the subject. A man, when left alone for 60 hours on a bus in the Australian Outback, solved a century-old math problem. A man who has spoken at Oxford. Well, a man who was invited to speak at Oxford, and then did so, which is a different thing altogether.

Not to mention Ralph Kopperman, the astronomy nut, the autodidact, the bicycler, the movie critic, the fastidious eater with the oddest tastes known to man, the Jew from Queens, the terror of Colombia, the camper, 70's edition Ralph Kopperman wildman, the home repair guru, the mechanic, etc.

And of course, not to mention Ralph Kopperman, the father. A hard act to follow, to be sure.


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