Lessons from My Dad

In 1950-something in Alabama, my grandmother gave birth to her second child.  Exactly thirty years and three months later in a town in Tennessee, that son, now grown and married, became a father to the most adorable baby ever born: Me.  This week is my dad’s birthday, and as I can think of only one other person (that would be my mom) who has helped me ‘Make My Way’ as much as he has, it seemed appropriate to dedicate this column to some lessons he taught me.

Ask Questions.  My dad is a scientist, so it’s probably no surprise that he encouraged questions.  Of course he also encouraged me to find the answers myself, like when I got a flat tire the first time and he suggested I read my car manual to learn how to fix it.  My dad taught me that knowing how things work was the key to fixing them.  As a kid I dissected telephones, radios, and once a camera---I think, all with my dad's permission. Our house always had a dictionary, at least one set of encyclopedias, and for many years was also home to Mona---a life size paper cut-out showing the bone and muscle systems of the human body.  Mona hung on our living room wall. It may seem odd, but Mona was just a part of the bigger picture. Education and knowledge were always prized.  In college when I finally declared my major as Art History, my dad never asked what I thought I was going to do with my degree or what the ‘real world’ applications might be. I could have studied business or communications or something else that might be more marketable, but I grew up believing that knowledge was the end goal, not a job title, so I chose to spend four years studying something I enjoyed and found interesting.  He never questioned it, and I never regretted it. Knowledge for Knowledge’s sake, my dad taught me that.

Carry an extra $20.  Growing up, if I was going out with friends to a movie or the mall, my dad always made sure I had a little more cash than what I thought I would need.  Just take it, just in case, he would say. You never know when you’re going to need $20. There were bigger financial lessons, but I think most of those stuck better on my little sister, at least so far, there’s still time for me. The other lesson in the $20 though is generosity. As an adult, there have been times I’ve gone to my parents to borrow money. It’s not a particularly grown-up thing to do, and if they had a different attitude about it I might be a little ashamed.  But I’m not, because we’re all here to help each other. Someday I might have a little extra in the bank and lend it to someone else who needs a hand, and when I do, I’ll adopt my father’s attitude: I have it, you need it, it’s fine. Both of my parents are generous with their time and their money. They give to charity and to causes they believe in. That spirit is the reason my sister and donate to NPR, just like our dad.

Have Fun. My dad used to toss me into the air when I was a toddler. Apparently it was great fun; scared the daylights out of my mom though. He’s the person I probably get my wit and sense of humor from. Both of my parents are hilarious, but my dad’s humor is more of a smart biting wit, like mine, while my mother’s is a gentler, kinder joke. He also has a loud laugh. Something I’m sure I picked up along the way. We’re not the folks who will chuckle quietly; we’re more of the L-O-L type. Beyond laughing, my dad taught me to have fun and do things that are interesting to me. Whether in work or at home, there’s no point in being bored. That’s a lesson that has influenced my adult life in profound ways and lead to great joy. I don’t particularly care what my job title is or if I have a fancy office. My life is what matters, as is my joy. If I’m having fun, then great, but if I’m not, then it’s time to move on, my dad taught me that.

Try New Things.  When I was about 9 or 10 my family went to Disney World. At an evening dinner my dad asked if I wanted to try his dinner, I asked what it was and after hearing a bland answer (Pasta), took a bite. But it didn't taste like normal pasta, so I asked again. Pasta with Calamari my dad told me. When kid-me finally figured out that calamari was a fancy word for squid, I was less than thrilled. But I tried it. And I'm still telling the story 20 years later. New experiences lead to great stories. My dad is a great story teller, even if he's telling embarrassing stories about me (like the time I tried to crawl through a rocking chair and got stuck), you can't help but listen and laugh along. Sometimes you have to lean in and go for it without knowing what the outcome will be. Even if its totally gross, chances are you'll still have a story to tell.

Take Care of those Around You. My dad is kind of a rock. He takes care of everyone in our family. When I came back from Bangladesh suddenly, and barely knew which way was up after 48+hrs of travel, I went home to my parent’s house. Both my parents gave me big hugs while I cried, my dad then gave me some chocolate and poured my wine into a plastic glass because I was afraid I’d “drop it and then step on the glass shards and die, because that’s the kind of day I’ve been having”. In a dramatic moment like that, it’s the little things, like wine in a plastic glass, that start to make it ok. My dad may be the most responsible person I know. Whether he’s answering questions about a weird sound someone’s car is making or doing my grandmother’s taxes, he's always a rock. I aspire to be that solid, where other’s know without question that they can count on me and I’ll step up without pause, just like my dad. 

There are many more lessons: Don’t ever decide what you want to be when you grow up; be open to change; create things; never stop learning; you can do anything you want if you set your mind to it, and more.  I could never write them all out.  So I’ll close by saying happy birthday to the guy who gave me my first stereo, let me stay up past my bedtime as long as I was reading, and, as he walked me down the aisle on my wedding day, said ‘Take your time. We’ve got all the time in the world’.

Love you, Kid 1