I am lucky enough to have a dad that taught me a great deal. His teachings had me well-prepared to venture out and live on my own, and I like to think that so far, I’ve done a pretty good job. I can thank him for a good portion of my success. He was there to teach me the things that television and movies would have you believe a dad should teach a son. We were out in the garage late into the night prying a headlight out of our car for my first lesson in auto mechanics. Later, I watched him jumpstart a car, learned to change a tire, and was shown step-by-step how to change my oil.
These lessons proved useful when a stranger flagged me down outside my community college to help him get his car started; when my tire blew out just off the freeway while on my way to a wrestling tournament; and every few months when my oil filter is due for replacement. He taught me how to stack sticks into a log cabin or a teepee and start a campfire. I learned rules for games like chess. I took indirect lessons in hosting parties and barbeques, watching and unconsciously learning how to entertain. We built fences, dressers, and kitchen cabinets; these were lessons in how to bend a crowbar the right way so that I can “work smarter, not harder”, how to handle the intense vibrations of a power tool, and the value of good workmanship. Today, these translate to applicable and tangible skills, the virtues of which can be seen when I needed a fire to cook dinner by that clear, placid mountain lake in the middle of the dense, green forest in the Trinity Alps of Northern California or when I helped plan and cook a barbeque for nearly one hundred visitors and students in my department or when I built raised feeding bowls for Simba. There were also broadly-reaching lessons, ones that apply every day and have shaped me into the person I am today. Of course, I am thankful for the small lessons, which give me the confidence and skills I need to get by, but I am also indubitably grateful for these larger lessons. As a “Happy Father’s Day”, I want to share some stories, some life lessons from my dad.
According to my dad, self-control is not tying your cat up with a makeshift leash when you want to have him for yourself. I don’t think I was much older than 5 or 6. These were the days when a video game system in my house was unheard of; the idea of owning a Gameboy or a Super Nintendo was just starting to plant itself in my mind. To occupy my time, I would create new worlds with Lego or drive Hot Wheels through my city map area rug. Another form of entertainment was our cat, Ian, who had been in the family longer than I had. He was as cats are, curious at times but also independent.
One night, I decided that I was not a fan of the latter trait. I wanted Ian to hang out with me, to make me the center of his attention. I wanted Ian for myself. I knew that dogs could be controlled and kept close by leashes, and with the five-year-old logic that I was equipped with at the time, I deduced that if cat = pet and dog = pet, then cat = dog. I also apparently formed the conclusions that a long piece of yarn could be just like a leash and that tying a knot around my pet’s tail was the same as hooking a leash to his collar. So in a few short minutes, I had my cat’s tail tied up with a piece of string; my own pet on a leash. I tied the other end somewhere inside my room and opened the window – to give Ian some freedom, apparently.
Being a child, I had a child’s short attention span and quickly forgot about my pet. It wasn’t on my mind at all when I fell asleep, but I was reminded shortly after my head hit the pillow and my eyes closed for a deep rest. The door to my bedroom swung open and the light flicked on, rousing me from my sleep. My groggy eyes focused on the human shape under the doorframe: my father, and he was not happy. He explained that some friends had visited that evening and made a comment about a prank set up on the sidewalk. When they left, he finally figured out what they meant. There was a length of yarn extending from one bush on the right side of the walkway into another bush on the left side. It looked like someone had stretched taut this string, trying to trip a distracted visitor as they walked up to our front door. The details of exactly how my parents followed my makeshift leash and found my poor cat are lost on me today, but I know that the string had been tangled between the branches and leaves of the bushes. Our feline family member had been stuck, and it was probably lucky that they found him that soon.
What isn’t lost on me is the lesson that my dad tried to teach me: our actions have consequences, and we should exercise self-control. The meaning of self-control was foreign to me at the time, but, craving sleep but being kept awake by this lecture that has stuck with me for nearly two decades, I learned that self-control was about understanding consequences and exercising prudence. It’s something that I still value today.
I don’t remember the exact situation where I learned this lesson, but my dad defined integrity for me in a way that has stuck with me today. Integrity is a very important part of my career; research is often conducted by yourself, sometimes at odd hours on weekends where no one else might not be around. How easy it would be to cut corners and change parameters that might help speed up the process so that I could get home sooner. But my dad’s definition of integrity gnaws in the back of my mind, and I know the guilt that my own conscious would burden me with would be unbearable heavy.
I do remember standing in our garage, tools scattered on the workbench near the metal lockers used for storage. It was wrestling season, and I kept a scale in the garage to monitor my weight during the week. We were probably checking weight before dinner, maybe the night before a tournament, to gauge how much I could eat and still make weight. I don’t recall how the topic came up, but my dad started discussing integrity. Again, this word was not in my vocabulary, and so my dad defined it. “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when nobody’s watching.” This is a quote from C.S. Lewis, according to a quick Google search, but to me, this is and always will be a quote from my dad.
One year during wrestling season, my dad decided to come out of retirement, slip on his wrestling shoes, and get back on the mat. He hadn’t wrestled since college, but he started training again so that we could wrestle at some tournaments together. He didn’t want to have to wrestle the broad-shouldered college wrestlers, and so he set in his mind to shed a few pounds to drop to the next lowest weight class.
Nearly every day after work, he would be in the background, jumping rope. We would go to wrestling practice together, and he would grapple with the local high school kids. Eventually, he signed up for a tournament. He only had one match, and it was over in a few seconds. My dad made easy work of his opponent with a quick pin. That short match after the time spent training was not enough for him. We spent three tournaments next to each other sharing a spot on top of the podium – gold medals for each of us. It’s a great memory to have, but it’s also a testament to the hard work ethic that he instilled in me.
Whether it was wrestling or yard work or carpentry, my dad worked hard, and he wanted us to do the same. Now, things don’t seem so difficult. My sisters and I were shaken awake on summer days to start cleaning up the garden in the backyard. We were sometimes tasked with helping keep the garage and house clean. We were pushed to earn good grades and to not quit in our extracurricular. It was a struggle sometimes; we were kids and wanted an easy way out. But in the end, I think it was worth it. The hard work that I did growing up makes everything seem easier now.
These are a few values that I learned from my dad that stick with me today, stories that are fresh in my mind with lessons that have made me a better person. I thank him for these experiences along with thousands more that have molded me into who I am today. This short post is just a small tribute and a modest Father’s Day gift in return for everything that has been given to me. I really appreciate the childhood that I had and the father that was there to help me grow and learn.