By Elizabeth Speth
It was a risky proposition, corralling Neil with a series of probing and provocative questions. I knew it could skid sideways at any point. There was the possibility of profanity, of inappropriate and suggestive responses. Political rants were likely. If his critics are to be believed, Neil can be counted upon to gauge what is expected of him, only to execute an immediate and opposing course of action. He might have clammed up completely.
We have all heard the stories — the mismatched shoes at work, the crumpled hat, the sleeping at the desk. The inappropriate texts accidentally sent to his children. Who is the man behind the mess? Was finding out worth the almost inevitable fiasco?
After a long negotiation process, several cancellations and no-shows, he arrived late on a cloudy morning for our interview at the dining room table. He declined to remove his sunglasses. He was restless, edgy. Periodically, he stared into space, and several times he rested his forehead in his hands, closed his eyes, and appeared to sleep briefly. I had hoped a glass of wine would help. Or whiskey. Neil is famously fond of a good bourbon. He declined those offers, and requested espresso. I knew we were in for a challenging discourse.
Elizabeth: Thanks for sitting down with me, Neil. First let me just say that there are no right or wrong answers. However, I do expect you to give me the answer I want. If you don’t get the answer on the first try, I’ll ask you again, and eventually I’ll just change the answer to my preferred response. So there’s no pressure on you. My first questions is: Can you give me a three-sentence biography? Only the high points, please.
Neil: Born in New York. Happy Childhood. Married well.
Elizabeth: Describe your life in one sentence?
Neil: All itches scratched — no holes.
Elizabeth: Uh. Ok. What is your philosophy as a father?
Neil: As a father? Lead by example. Of course I’ve fallen woefully short. My intent is to provide a secure foundation, support their decisions. I’m a kind of loosely authoritative figure. Just this side of arbitrary. Maybe the other side of completely arbitrary. It doesn’t matter, because they never pay attention to my parenting. So don’t expect me to tell you if it works. I guess my parenting style is ‘be ignored’.
Elizabeth: Perhaps it’s still being formulated….
Neil: The truth is, I spent too much of my parenting time thinking about the wrong things. Stressing about work. I should have spent more time developing my parenting style. Don’t write that down — that’s off the record.
Elizabeth: Of course. Next question: You are not a vain man, not overly-encumbered by ego. Yet you do allow yourself a couple of small vanities. You are meticulous about your weight, and you never leave the house without cologne. Discuss.
Neil: I don’t think I take myself too seriously. We all have ego. Mine was spent in achieving my professional goals. That was enough impetus to get me where I needed to go. Ego should be used to motivate you to achieve goals. It should be harnessed, like a work horse, but then you should be done with it.
Elizabeth: What defines ‘manhood’ for you? You have sons. What would you like them to know about being men?
Neil: I don’t put much stock in manhood. I believe in being a good person. Politically, I’m a conservative, and sometimes people like me are accused of waging war on women. But I don’t think in those terms. I believe in good human values, man or woman.
Elizabeth: Name a time you were horribly, woefully wrong about something, and I was right, but you never admitted it.
Neil: Can’t think of anything.
Elizabeth: Take as much time as you need.
Neil: Well, I can tell you one time you were very, very right. You signed me up to coach youth basketball without asking me first. If you’d asked, I’d have said no. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. A great experience.
Elizabeth: I feel that you dodged the question, but we can come back to it. What is your favorite thing?
Neil: Weekend horseback rides. The American River Canyon. My childhood. Good health.
Elizabeth: What is your least favorite thing?
Neil: Waking up at five a.m. to go to work. Feeling rushed. Feeling hustled. Feeling rushed and hustled by my wife.
Elizabeth: What is a thing it has taken you a long time to learn?
Neil: Two things. One, how to get rid of the slice in my golf swing. That took thirty years. The other thing you taught me. You told me that we are never, ever going to change anyone’s mind about religion or politics when we argue with them. Can I apply that to the horribly, woefully wrong question?
Elizabeth: I guess. What is the one, only, teeny-tiny only complaint you have about me?
Neil: You are headstrong. You also —
Elizabeth: That’s one. Next question: Do you have a system in place so you will not go to work anymore with mis-matched shoes?
Neil: As long as they match closely enough, does it really matter? I have eight pairs of shoes I wear to work. It’s really hard to get that many shoes matched up. I look at my shoes like my children. As long as they are being cared for and given equal amounts of attention, it doesn’t matter if they are mismatched.
Elizabeth: Your shoes are like your children. Got it. Goals? Other than to raise good shoes?
Neil: I‘d like to sleep more. I’m looking forward to growing a garden this year. I want to retire so life can really begin.
Elizabeth: Speaking of retirement, what age do you feel you are?
Neil: Depends on the time of day. I used to feel perpetually 35. How old are you? You are old. You’ve got a birthday coming up, haven’t you?
Elizabeth: I’ll ask the questions, Neil. What do you feel was the greatest accomplishment of your parents’ generation, and your generation, and what would you like to see your children’s generation accomplish? .
Neil: My parents’ generation… Putting a man on the moon. It was a feat of discovery beyond all knowable borders. A dream fulfilled. My generation? The internet. That changed everything. Suddenly all knowledge is possible.
Elizabeth: And your children’s generation? What would you like to see them do?
Neil: I’d like to see them focus more on self-reliance, on family and community. (Note: Neil said some things here that were very politically oriented, which I have edited out. I will save those for when I start a blog titled: Mostly Strident and Argumentative Things.)
Elizabeth: What is your favorite one-liner?
Neil: That’s easy. It’s: ‘Orally. How do you take yours?’
Elizabeth: (…is speechless…)
Neil: That’s in response to the question: ‘How do you take your coffee?’ I have another one. ‘Lying down.’ Which is what you say when someone asks you how you slept.
Elizabeth: That’s really all the time we have now, Neil. Thank you very much.
Neil: I have a lot of jokes like that.
Elizabeth: We’re good. Thank you.