Richard Melnick, author of Parents Who Don't Do Dishes, talks Breaking Bad and clairvoyance
Richard Melnick was diagnosed with cancer a dozen years ago. While fighting a life-threatening illness and facing what could have been a premature death sentence, though, he discovered a new way of viewing the world.
One of the subjects he often pondered while in medical limbo was parenting, which he writes extensively about in his book Parents Who Don't Do Dishes. And while Melnick certainly covers his fair share of paternal methodologies, a large part of Parents Who Don't Do Dishes is devoted to examining life's simplest philosophies, told in memoir form with a healthy balance of pop-culture references and humor as decoration.
In advance of Melnick's book hitting the shelves at the Tattered Cover this week, Westword caught up with the first-time author to discuss why parents shouldn't do dishes, living in the moment and other random personal philosophies.
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Westword: You write about how, during an argument, your son suggested that you write a book. Was that the moment you realized you wanted to write a book, or did this idea slowly develop over time?
Richard Melnick: Yes, he absolutely did. This was five or six years ago, and it was during the course of a lecture I was giving him -- or rather wisdom I was hoping to impart on him. He said, "Dad, you should really write a book." After the words came out of his mouth, I did start to wonder. Well, actually, I was originally quite pleased with myself for getting that type of reaction out of my speech. [Laughs] But then I did come to wonder if there was a little sarcasm to it. I had been thinking about writing a book for the last thirteen years since I got sick with cancer. Then I kind of blew it off. I'm a slacker and I'm lazy.
My son Josh definitely provided me a nudge about six years ago. Then my ex-girlfriend said that I should write a book of life lessons and work in some recipes as well, because everybody loves my cooking. So a year ago, I figured that was the template for sharing this. It would be a parenting book, and I'd work in some other stuff about practicing immediacy, authenticity and aliveness, which I had learned in particular as a result of having looked into that abyss when I was sick with cancer.
You talk a lot about immediacy in your book. For those who may be unfamiliar with this concept, what does it mean to live with immediacy? How do you do it? And is it possible to combine immediacy with longevity?
Oh, sure. In fact, I think the irony of it is that time slows down when you're practicing immediacy. And when I say immediacy, it's basically my way of saying "living in the moment." It means being hyper-alert and hyper-vigilant to what you're feeling. It's all your sense of touch, taste, smell and so on. I think feeling is your deepest experience of being alive. How do you do that? You first learn to differentiate between thinking and feeling. That was definitely one of the skills I sought to teach my boys when I was scared of my life being taken away from me: learning to notice that voice in your head that is distinct from the feelings you have. The voice in your head typically distracts you from the world of feeling. It works to compete with your deepest experience of being alive. Maybe you're trying to organize and manipulate the next moment instead of allowing it to unfold naturally. Maybe you're labeling the present moment as good or bad. It's just noticing all this chatter in your head. Your natural state should be spacious, alert and peaceful...
You're not gonna make me sound like a crackpot, are you? You gotta tone all this down. This is a lot. [Laughs]
In a way your book reminded me of The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. It's sort of an archive of different philosophies. One that stood out to me, which you just mentioned above, is the constant battle of feeling vs. thinking. Are those mutually exclusive states of being or can you find a healthy balance between the two?
I think that's what we're all looking for. You just can't let the tail wag the dog. You can't let your thoughts be so habitual that you lose sight of the world of feeling. In a perfect world we'd probably use our brains and our thinking mind 5 percent of the time, just to arrange appointments, be on time and so on. But I suspect we'd be happier if we were more engaged in the world of feeling.
Do you watch Breaking Bad? Can you relate to the main character, Walter White, who also had cancer and was scared for his family and what he'd leave behind? In other words, did your cancer inspire you to write this book in any way?
No, I know I need to watch; I've been hearing about it for years. But I was dealing with cancer about thirteen years ago. It was really the first year or two that it was a major part of my life, day in and day out, in terms of managing the emotional landscape. That's why I weave the story of cancer through the book. I guess what I learned from being sick is to be on fire with gratitude. If you talk to a cancer survivor, they've had their ticket punched. They've looked into that big, deep, dark abyss where there's just no going back. It's humbling. But it comes and goes over the years. When I got sick thirteen years ago, I still had a sense of the possibility of seeing Jackson, my eldest son, graduate from high school. He was entering first grade at that time. And I just remember thinking, "Wow, twelve years down the road -- if only." Having this come to pass, I guess in a way it was a huge motivator because I knew it was now time to totally bear witness to my gratitude. The whole cancer backdrop was strong motivation for me to get it done this year as a tribute to seeing this day come and watching my kid graduate from high school.