Monday, August 13, 2012

The Fine Art of Dad

We just returned from a week in California where I am reminded of what a luxury it is to be around family and friends and humidity. A couple months ago my mom told me she was thinking of throwing my dad a big party for his 60th birthday. My first thought was, "I wish we could go." I began to watch airfares. When the prices did not drop, Joel and I talked about it and decided we could afford it anyway. I am grateful for a husband who recognizes the importance of family and doesn't mind when I ask if we can stay for 8 days.

I'll detail some of the excellent adventures later, but suffice it to say that Gemma was really ticked with me this morning. "You said we'd be there a long time, and that was NOT a long time." When I replied, "We were there for 8 days," she folded her arms across her chest and challenged me, "Well then, 8 days isn't long. Ten days might be long." I know how she feels. A week of not having to worry about any real responsibility is wonderful.

The party took place the last night we were there and it was really fantastic to see some of my parents' friends whom I hadn't seen in a decade or more. I felt like I was 12 again. My mom did a great job on the party and the food and compiling a stack of photos depicting my dad's unfortunate wardrobe choices (hint: 70s & 80s, people). I decided to write a speech. Initially I wanted to title it, "Why my dad is the worst dad in the world," but I just couldn't do it. The fact is, any time I began to write, I was only writing stuff about why he was (and is) awesome. So I just went with it.

The Fine Art of Dad

I came home from the 6th grade one day to tell my parents that I wanted to run for student body secretary. I was particularly excited to tell my dad, given his storied career in school government. His first response was, "Why not President?" I didn't have a good answer for him, the real answer being that I thought President sounded like it required actual WORK, so I shrugged, crossed out "secretary" and wrote in "president." From there, my Dad taught me the intricacies of running a campaign, from selecting a campaign manager to creating posters, to writing a speech. I don't remember all of our taglines, but I remember delivering the final line to my speech, where I asked everyone to please stand, and then closed with a rousing, "Now that you've stood for me, vote for me!" I remember the deafening roar from the audience, matched only by when they announced, days later, that I was the new school president. My dad taught me the fine art of persuasion.

Just a year earlier, I had come home from school positively giddy at something that had happened. I told my dad how we had been asked a question on a test and since I didn't know the actual answer, I just wrote everything down that was even kind of close. Not only did I get credit for that answer, but the teacher proceeded to read it aloud as an example of how to answer an essay question. I couldn't believe I had gotten away with never actually answering the question. As I relayed this to my dad, his face softened, and perhaps his voice broke a little as he placed a hand on my shoulder and said, "My child, I am so proud. You have learned the fine art of BS." (he then had to explain what "BS" stood for and my eyes just about fell out of my head)

The most annoying kid on our block used to make me miserable at school. One night, my dad sat on my bed and told me the next time he teased me, I should say, "Oh yeah, well you shouldn't be mean to me because I stood up for you," and when he asked how, say, "Some kids were making fun of you for eating dog food sandwiches, but I told them it wasn't true because you didn't even like bread." My dad taught me that a sense of humor is essential to survival, and to have a certain pride in being smarter and funnier than someone else. What I didn't know at that time was that most of my dad's material (even my speech closer) was borrowed from pioneers in comedy like classic Saturday Night Live skits. No matter. The wisdom comes in the timing and delivery.

With my first CD player, I was given the soundtrack to 'Animal House' and an album from the Byrds. My dad once ordered and dissected a frog on the kitchen table. He helped my siblings and I win multiple science fairs. He helped us outline plots for our Young Authors submissions. When I wasn't more than 5 or 6, he used to wake me up in the middle of the night and carry me into the backyard where he had already moved a rocking chair for us to sit in and watch the lunar eclipse. (this has been such a significant memory that Joel and I were excited to replicate this on a Denver winter's night almost 2 years ago, and my kids loved it) He sat with us through hours of algebra and trigonometry and calculus homework, helping us understand concepts and then saying, 'Ok now explain it back to me so I know you really understand it.' He bought a book on soccer when I wanted to sign up for my first season so he could understand what in the heck I was doing out there. In college, I took a course titled, "Tsarist Russia," simply because he had mentioned thinking it was cool (and also because I misunderstood and thought he had actually taken the course). I was the only person in there who did not speak Russian, but it remains one of my favorite classes. Through all this, he taught me the fine art of education.

Nobody plans a better family trip. Nobody does a better Christmas. Nobody navigates a prime rib and crab leg buffet better. One of my favorite parts of our trip to Hawaii 8 years ago was my dad gathering us before dinner and saying, "Ok, let's be smart. They're going to put the salad and bread and fillers at the front. DON'T be distracted. If your plate isn't 75% protein, you're doing it wrong. Stay the course."

At the end of my 8th grade year the Vice Principal called me into his office. There he mapped out how my social studies teacher had discovered I had helped a girl cheat on 10 unit tests through the year and was therefore a cheater myself. I would have Saturday school and massive amounts of makeup work if I wanted to pass the class in the remaining month of school. I was horrified. My mom reacted much the same way most parents would - upset, crying, yelling. I expected this. The guilt and humiliation I felt as I sat in the pathetic space between my bed and my wall and awaited my dad's return from work was the worst. But my Dad came home, sat on my bed, and without even making eye contact, merely said, "Once when I was younger, a friend and I had a BB gun. And when we got tired of shooting targets, we shot a neighbor's window. And the police came. We all do stupid things. It's what we do after those stupid things that make us who we are." And then he quietly got up and walked out. My dad taught me the fine art of forgiveness.

When we'd be in line at at an amusement park and have to pair off, my dad would wave us ahead and say, "Your mom and I will sit in the back. We're going to make out." Most kids know where they were born, but I bet not many have had the unique experience of having their dad point out a building and say, "And that's where you were made!" Even though it was often in jest, and we would groan and act grossed out, there is something to be said for growing up in a family where you know your dad truly loves your mom. Even most recently, when he was reporting on his and my mom's triumphant finish of their Seattle to Portland double century, this is what he emailed:
Mom hates it when I talk her up, but with an endorphin high still working its magic I have to mention one observation. As we ate our post-ride meal in the midst of all the celebration, I looked at your mom and marveled that while she looked a bit older, and certainly more disheveled at that moment, than she did when I fell in love with her, after 38 years and all she has done, she is one tough and attractive babe, and I couldn’t be more thankful she’s been drafting (and often pulling) me all these years.
My dad has taught me the fine art of love and loving your family.

Almost 3 years ago, Laura and I decided we wanted to do a 10k when we were home for Thanksgiving. We knew we could get Becca to do it with us. And then I said, "We should get Dad to do it. You know if we throw it out there, he'll probably do it." The next day his email came back, "My initial reaction was 'no thanks' but 2009 has been a year of impressive - at least I think so - physical renewal and I'm warming up to the idea." He then outlined several concerns, one of which being that the longest he had ever run in his life was 4 miles, another being that he hadn't run more than a mile in a really long time. But when the man says he's going to do something, he commits entirely. The night before the race, his friend Mike Ober asked, in wonder (or perhaps confusion), "What's next? A half marathon?" My dad laughed and shook his head and said he didn't think he'd keep up the running and certainly wouldn't run farther. He has since run countless 7 and 8-mile runs and finished his first half marathon last September. He has a personal trainer named Vinnie. He and my mom are road biking nuts. It is both humbling and inspiring to have them kick my butt up and down Calaveras Blvd. He has achieved a physical fitness level I don't think he ever even dreamed of. My dad, and mom, have taught me the fine art of aging well.

So raise your glass and toast the man who has probably taught each of us something, and will continue the fine art of living well.


Kellie Knapp said...

Hear, hear!!

Nataluscious said...

Beautiful Sarah, as I would have expected from you ;). But, hands down, my favorite part was the story of when you got caught cheating and how he handled it. I had never heard that story before, and it is incredibly touching and a very, very smart way to handle something like that. I am going to remember that because I am sure there will come a time when I can use it!

Janet T. Perry said...

I shared your story about cheating last Sunday in Sunday School. I thought it fit in well with the lesson about parenting (Alma, an imperfect dad, counseling three imperfect sons). Thanks for your transparency.