I've been thinking today of the gift of being protected by one's father.
I mentioned yesterday that I met a young fellow who cried when he lost chess games during my chess tournament. I never cry over chess, but I remember throwing a tennis racket or two and a golf club or seven in my own youth. Even though I discourage using golf clubs as frisbees, I must admit that there is something vaguely satisfying about watching a driver spiral away, a long post with a nearly useless wooden mallet attached, which spirals balls out of sight toward the green for one's opponent and sends them piddling inches from the starting point for oneself, or slicing 200 yards in perfect pattern, at a 33 degree angle away from the hole, in the very next shot. I have a theory, still in formation, that hiking gold courses and winging irons about is more fun than the game itself.
I am grateful that my father was not one of those "sports dads", who tried to live vicariously through his children's prowess or lack thereof, or who invested undue emotion in the outcome of baseball games or similar matters. His one concern about sports was that we not get hurt. Where I came from, football was the second religion after Christianity. When I was 12, and I had to get his permission to play sixth grade football, I thought it a bit intimidating to have to ask for something other folks thought came automatically. Now that I am a bit older than he was when I was 12, I really appreciate the way that his first thought, always, was to protect his kids from getting hurt. Parenthetically, if I were in the regret business, I would regret that I did not honor my mother's fond desire that I play in the school band.
I would enjoy being more musical than I am.
South Arkansas has some areas that can be frankly and without undue abashment described as snake-y. The water mocassin always appears in books on science as shy, but those of us who walk in wetlands know they are almost comically inquisitive and sometimes mildly aggressive. When we would go see my father's father, who lived in the country near a rural community known as Lester, Arkansas, my dad would caution us in clear "you'll get bit" terms to watch for these snakes. As I grew up, I learned to watch for snakes wherever I go--including the metaphoric ones. I don't hate snakes--in reptilian or human form. But I know that sometimes they bite, and that with a sharp eye and a little intuition, one can sometimes see a viper-shaped head emerge. I'm grateful that although in some ways I am absent-minded or disorganized, when it comes to matters of the mind and eye I am rather vigilant and and watchful.
This gift of observatiom is a precious one. I spent a lot of my childhood literally hunting diamonds. Arkansas has the only state park which is a dormant volcano cone, where the general public can hunt and often finds diamonds in what looks like a plowed field. One of my father's interests was geology, and we spent dozens upon dozens of
Saturdays and Sundays walking those fields in search of diamonds. He found three, because he has a keen eye for such things. I never found any,but I found mountains of quartz, calcite and jasper, a peridot or two, and a little amethyst. I retain a fondness for this place, where I can walk for hours and think and daydream.
I believe that one reason I am a relatively contented man is that the ability to entertain myself and to find solace in my thoughts. I learned from my father to
adopt hobbies--even hobbies in fields I had to self-educate myself in from scratch--to keep the mind alive and to render life less boring. I also learned a deep respect for learning for its own sake, and for reading as one of the ultimate pleasures.
My parents motivated me to do well in school, but there was none of the loss of perspective that seems to inflame parents these days. They weren't worried about me getting into a prestigious school. They emphasized working up to one's potential--and assumed that their kids had real potential. They wanted me to get a degree, develop the ability to earn a living, and be happy. I learned from my father that hard work pays off. I think that he and I both learned in our careers in the long run that one has to balance hard work with the rest of life.
In high school I was an honor student, but in college I took a physics degree I did not find easy. My grades slipped to the B level, with A grades in anything not math and science offset by too many C grades in calculus and physics. I appreciated that my father took out his own college grades from his days at Tulane, and showed me courses he had not done so well in. He had ultimately qualified for medical school, but it had required hard work and resolve. I brought that same resolve--admixed with a measure of healthy, motivating fear--to my law school experience, and propelled myself back into the honors graduates. I credit in part the lesson my father taught me over and over--that it's not only okay but purifying to work to do things one is not necessarily good at doing, and that one should not let the adversary--within or wihout--get one down. I like that my father was and is always a fighter, who believes in grit, and in fighting the good fight even if one is not winning.
I have a favorite memory I'd like to share with you. My family celebrates Christmas in a somewhat German fasihon, opening gifts on Christmas Eve. One year, my "big gift" was a Sears refracting telescope. My father set it up for me in the back yard, and we looked at the moon. It looked so cool, on its tripod, like a rocket cathedral pointing to the sky. I remember still how amazing the first view of craters through a cheap Barlow lens was for me. I learned to use the telescope myself in short order, and developed a sense of wonder (as well as a sense of looking at tiny planets in search of miniscule moons) which never leaves me.
Today it's Father's Day. As with so many other Father's Days, I've gotten my gifts off to my father exquisitely timed so that they did not reach him in time for the day, but will trickle in later, past their past-due date. I like that at 73, he's embarked on a project to restore 1930s era Austin autos he finds on eBay. I loved when I was a kid that he and a neighbor re-built a model T from nearly scratch.
I wish I could tell that young fellow who cried yesterday after losing each game a few things I learned from my own childhood--that you learn more from losing games than from winning; that you can't live your life based on wins and losses, but you have to live your life based on integrity to who you are; and that of all the treasures of the emotional life, a sense of equanimity and perspective is among the most precious.
I also would tell that young man that thought sometimes the bushes have a lot of snakes in them, they sometimes in June also have blackberry vines--and that eveyrhing dangerous or worthwhile requires a keen eye and a learning mind. There is so much harm to avoid, and so much good to find.
On this Father's Day I'm grateful to my father for all those things I learn and see, and so many more things that go here unrecounted.