Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Take and Give

Whenever I get the New Yorker magazine, the first thing I do is go through and read the cartoons, starting at the back and working my way to the front.  It’s my little ritual.  It’s my little treat, like starting with dessert, a little cup of chocolate mousse before the meat and potatoes.  And then I scan the articles and memoirs and stories for an entrĂ©e.   This is an actual luxury.  Having two kids and taking class at nights, there’s very little “me” time to be stolen for something as decadent as reading for pleasure, especially during the week.  I could do it at night, but I’d be out in seven paragraphs. (And, I’m really not a bathroom reader.)  So I read in chunks, a page here, a few cartoons there.  I take what I can get.
One afternoon, I was sitting on the sofa, chugging my way through a two-page essay, while my 3-year old son was at the dining room table in, drawing with colored pencils.  He brought in his first drawing for me to look upon, orange and brown circular scribbles, which after much spinning round and holding it near to my face and far, it was explained to me that it was a mountain vista.  (Then I saw it right off, of course.)  My son must have relished the ooohh-ing and ahhh-ing I gave his work because he began quite a prolific phase following the mountain landscape.  He was rushing back and dashing off scribbled masterpieces for my immediate perusal.  The problem was, I was starting to read the same paragraphs over and over.  I couldn’t even remember what I had just read. 
After the fourth piece, I said, “Why don’t you just make a pile and I’ll look at them all at once when you’re done.”  Holding the fifth out to me, he said, “I made it for you.”  And then he just stared up into my face.  Uncle.  “You win,” I said, and then I pulled in his newest piece for further scrutiny.         
I actually had to remind myself that he was seeing mountains, that he was proud, that he was doing the most important thing in the world at that moment.  More important than some magazine.  And the last thing he needed in the world was a brush-off from Dad.  He needed one hundred percent of me, living for him.  This is not always the easiest.  Sometimes, I have to be reminded, like the best of them.
There’s a passage in The Bible in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, 10:24, where Paul commands, “Let no man seek his own, but every man another's wealth.”  This passage is widely interpreted, yet the common denominator of those interpretations is simply this: Paul is clarifying that no man should seek his own gratification, especially at the expense of others.  To always be considerate of others is what is most important.  In short, live for others. 
When my father used to sell pianos and organs, sometimes he would have to drum up business by demonstrating instruments at festivals and shows, grabbing leads from passersby who showed a smidge of interest.  “I’ve always wanted to learn how to play,” they would say.  Or something like, “You mean it’s just that easy?”  And then my dad would attempt to reel them in.
On some of those Saturdays, my dad would take me along, often by default because there was no one home to watch over me.  My dad would hand me a fiver for a hotdog and a drink and to play some of the games designed to entertain children, ring toss, fishing with magnets, or maybe I’d get my face painted. 
It’s fair to say that, like so many young boys, I idolized my dad.  He was the bedrock of our family.  I even emulated him.  If he rolled up his sleeves, I rolled up my sleeves. If he picked up a walking stick in the woods, I picked up a miniature version.  And so when on one of those Saturdays at a craft show when I was looping around the circle of wares I found the perfect homage to what my dad meant to me, I didn’t think twice about handing over whatever paltry sum that paid the price for the monument I had found to my father.
At one of the craft tables, an elderly woman with light brown hair and white roots was selling her creations of walnut figures.  She had cleverly taken halved walnut shells as heads and fixed little twigs beneath them to resemble bodies and glued each on to tiny planks of painted wood.  And next to each, she had written words of inspiration, Hang in There, You’re the Best, Best Friend.  And then there was the “World’s Greatest” figurines, World’s Greatest Teacher, World’s Greatest Secretary, World’s Greatest Fisherman.  But they all melted from view when I spied the one that seemed to have been specifically made for my father—World’s Greatest Dad. 
After paying the proper coins, I scooped up the walnut-faced talisman and cradled it in my hands, as though I were holding a chalice; and I weaved my way back to my father.  “Dad, I got something for you,” I beamed. 
He stared into my outstretched hands and merely said, “Don’t spend your money like that.”   I didn’t know what he meant then, that he would rather I spend it on me.  Still, I was crestfallen.  Deflated.  I saw that he was genuinely disappointed, which made no sense to me.  I expected him to lose his breath, gather me up in a firm embrace, and we’d have one of those Lifesaver father-son moments we’d always remember.  Instead, he may as well have slapped the craft out of my tiny hands. 
But then his carriage changed, perhaps sensing my devastation.  He picked up the walnut man and began to study it, even remarking that he thought it looked a little like him.  He said it was a treasure.  I knew what he was doing, but I didn’t mind.  I wanted so badly for him to like it and to see that I was making a public, proud gesture about how I saw him.       
More often than not, what Paul asks in his letter to the Corinthians goes completely against our instincts, our own desires to feed our own selfishness.  Obviously, that is why Paul must make a direct plea to that point.  Even the most righteous must be reminded.  Even my dad had to remind himself.  And at the moment when he saw the crushed spirits of his boy, he endeavored to make it right. 
Over the next several years, I’d run into the little walnut man from time to time.  He was always there, but I hadn’t consciously focused in on him.  He had blended into the background, as would an old dime store lithograph or a yellowing bouquet of silk flowers.  But he was there.  My father saw to it.  I’d turn a corner and see the little statue on a shelf or on the back of a side table or on some ledge.  Because it was once important to me, it became all important to my dad to return my gesture with a small symbol of pride in what we meant to each other.   Across moves and room rearrangements, he lived quite a long life, that little guy; until only in recollection once I had become a man did I discover that he was actually gone. 
As none of us dads would, my father didn’t actually believe he was the “world’s greatest dad.”  But I did.  And so by just shutting up and accepting a little gift from me, he was allowing me to celebrate what he meant to me.  In his taking, he was giving.  Giving me the consideration I was hungering for.  Giving me everything I needed.   Living just for me.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Relief of Rescue

One night a couple of years ago, I was having the most pleasant dream.  I was sitting on a bench, sipping a drink, while a parade marched by.  There were banners and horns and everyone was waving.  And my foot was very, very cold.  Suddenly I awoke, and my foot was still cold.  I looked down to the end of the bed, and I could make out my daughter’s silhouette.  She was shaking my foot with her chilled hand and she was whispering, “Daddy.”  I knew at once why she was there—she had wet the bed, again.  It was the third time within a week.  “I’m really sorry!” she said, as I was pulling off her sheet and covers. 

She was already changed and had gotten her sleeping bag out to sleep on the floor, but she had decided to tell me before bedding down on.  “Are you mad?” she asked.  “Well,” I began, “if pressed, I’d have to admit that I’d rather be sleeping through the night.  But never not tell me.  I’m not mad, Sweetie.  And I don’t want you sleeping on the floor.  We just have to figure out a way to get you to get up when you have to go.  I want you to get all your sleep, too.” 

Offering her as much reassurance as I could muster at 2 a.m., I tucked her back in over top layers of towels and blankets, went to the bathroom myself, and collapsed back in my bed.  And in the morning, I complained to my wife, again, about how I needed more sleep.  Nothing new there.
I was annoyed, of course, but that was one of those real parenting moments; and I couldn’t blow it.  Not the getting up and changing the covers and getting her back to sleep, that’s not what I needed her to see.  It was my attitude—that when my daughter needed me, and wanted me, she should never hesitate to come to me.  In case something really big happens, she needs to know she can race right to me and I’ll be there for her, just as she did as a kindergartener wetting the bed.   

The assurance I wanted give my daughter is partially the assurance Paul is addressing in his letter to the Galatians.  In Galatians 6:9, Paul writes, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”  What we can “reap” most in that “due season” is trust, the kind of trust that must be established at the beginning and then bolstered and buttressed over a lifetime, so that our children can at least know that there is always one safe, constant to turn to in their lives.  It’s the trust I am trying to instill in my daughter and son.  It’s the trust I always had in my father.  The trust he built for me.                

Somewhere in my early 20’s, I went through a phase where I kept locking my keys in the car.  I was driving a third-hand, red, battered, Pontiac Ventura.   This was in the days before remote controlled locks.  I actually had to push the down the locking stem on the door manually, with my bare hands.  And if my keys were still in the ignition, there was no friendly voice or pleasant gong to remind me before shutting the door and sealing the keys inside.   At the height of my negligence, I locked my keys in my car four times in two weeks.  And I’d have to call my dad to bring me another key.  To my great surprise, he never got mad, or he never showed it.  I remember that when he was sort of exasperated he’d drop his head and give a deep sigh.  And so when I would call him up from wherever I was, the library, the supermarket, the movies and say, “Dad, I’ve done it again.”  SIGH.  I could hear his head dropping over the phone.  “Where are you?”  And fifteen minutes later, he’d pull up, unwind the window an inch, stick the key out of the top of the window, and pull away.  He knew I didn’t mean to do it.  And I do recall that there was mention of some sort of magnetic box under the car with a spare key.  But that was after the last time I had a car key conundrum. 

Two friends and I went to see Paul Simon in Central Park.  Had a great time.  But before the show, I lost my car keys.  And we didn’t have enough money between us at that point to get a room or pay a lock smith or anything, and NY was not being charitable or welcoming to our little huddled mass at all that night.  Finally, it’s two a.m.  Exhausted, I make the call:  “Dad, you’re not going to believe this.”  BIG SIGH.  “Where are you?” he asks.  “I’m parked at the garage we always park at when we come to NY.”  “Stay there,” he said and then hung up.  He called my sister, picked her up to keep him company, and at 11:00 the next morning the two of them appeared in the distance on the sidewalk, walking down from 6th avenue, my father dragging his one foot a little more than usual.  Our trio shouted out and hugged him, as if seeing Dad was the happiest sight of our lives.  Perhaps it was—just an hour earlier we had seen a cabbie robbed of his cab right in front of us.  Dad handed us the keys.  With no more fanfare, we got in our cars and drove home.

I love retelling this tale, as I have done countlessly over the past 20 years, not because of the extreme details of rescue, but because of how impressed I am that my father had rescued me, yet again, without lecturing me, without berating me.  He knew I didn’t want lose my keys.  He knew that I would have exhausted every option before I called him.  But he also knew that when I called him, I knew he would get me home.  That when I put my problem in his hands, I would find peace, the relief of rescue.  That’s what I trusted. 

Still, part of what my father reaped, and is still reaping, is the legacy of his example that I try to continue, like on those nights when I am deep in a dream, and cold, little hand yanks me out of a pleasant slumber to change wet sheets.  And I do it, without too much grumbling, and with a little understanding, and kiss to the forehead.

A few days later after lost-keys-in-Gotham saga, I found my keys actually in my car, dangling from the base of the turn signal.  The steering column was very wide and hid it well.   I figured I dropped them near my car and some nice New Yorker opened my car and slid them down on my turn signal lever so I would find them.  About a year later, I told my dad what had happened.  All he did was drop his head and sigh. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Show, Not Tell

At just about the beginning of each new school year, I wish that I could travel back in time and reteach my first students.  I feel I did them a real disservice, and I would like right the wrongs of that year, applying all what I now know.  Although I am not about to hunt down all 122 of them and send them hand written apologies, and although most have gone on to college and are flourishing in their careers and families, I still can’t help fighting back the image of them sitting somewhere in front of a keyboard struggling to write a letter or an essay, fuming with frustration, and then cursing the name of their ninth grade English teacher as they conclude that it’s all his fault.  I realize that this wish isn’t that uncommon among teachers, but it doesn’t make it any less sincere. 
What am I now doing differently?  That’s a book in and of itself.  But if pressed, I’d have to say modeling.  So much of what I originally did was lecture, chalk-talk, sage on the stage.  Just tell them.  And that does work with some, but not too many.  What I neglected to recognize is how we actually learn best, through showing, not telling.  It’s like when someone says, Tell me a story.  That’s not what he’s really asking.  What he really wants is to be shown a story with words.  We need the visual.  We need the example.  The proven pudding.  Whether it’s an essay or critical analysis or a poem, I give them the model and then we journey together toward the answer.  It’s no great secret that’s the most effective way to learn.  It’s how I learned.  It’s how I’ve always learned best, through modeling, through example.  And not just in the classroom, anywhere in life.  Yet where I seemed to learn what has been most valuable to me is from the examples, the models, set by my father.
Recently on Facebook, a newly “confirmed” friend sent me a message that she recently remembered that my dad had taught her older sister to play guitar.  He, too, was a teacher.  A natural one.  He had more different jobs than anyone I have ever known, but I mostly remember as a teacher.  Not because he taught guitar and piano for so long, but because I can’t ever recall him not teaching.  It was a roll he was just suited for.  However, I don’t know how he would have fared in a classroom of two dozen adolescents.  He could have handled the students, but he would have been confined by the four walls.    His classroom was the world at large, and my sister and I were his chief pupils. 
Unlike my teaching, my dad didn’t make up lesson plans, create power points, and give quizzes.  His teaching was conducted by the deeds he did, the words he spoke, and the actions he took.  And I learned, constantly. 
My father never graduated high school because of his deafness and the need to help support his family.  From time to time, that fact cropped up to alter his endeavors.  Yet, Dad was an accomplished salesman, and he carried quite a respectable reputation.  There was a certain company trying to recruit him for a lucrative position, which would mean a great deal more of much needed money.  However, the policy of the company was that all sales personnel must have a high school diploma.  Yet, he checked the box indicating that he hadn’t graduated on the obligatory application.  When he went on the interview, the vice president, who was pursuing him, reminded my dad of this.  The VP’s solution was to lie and check the box on the application next to “achieved high school diploma.”  For my father, that was out of the question.  The VP all but begged my father, assuring him that it was just a formality, no one would ever know.  My father never worked for that company.
I asked, “Why not just sign it?  Who cares?”
My dad only said, “I try to live my life so nothing comes back to haunt me, especially some little lie on an application.”  My dad would never then turn to me and say, “Now you do likewise with your life’s decisions.”  That was telling.  Instead, he showed; that was teaching. 
It was because of those moments that my father had such a high reputation in a business where so many wished they hadn’t forfeited their integrity, while my father fortified his.  There were dozens of scenarios like these that I had heard, not just from him, but from so many others in his business who recounted them like folklore.  No doubt about it; his example set a high standard to follow.  And his was the one to follow. 
In Paul’s Epistle to Titus 2:7, Paul outlines a qualification for a good leader.  He stipulates, “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity…”  Here Paul distinguishes a good leader from bad by clarifying with the word “model.”  Not someone who tells.  Someone who demands of others what he may not practice himself.  Not just wisdom for the ear.  He says model.  Show, not tell.  In order for others to follow, they must first see the way, not just hear way, or be told the way.  That alone weeds out most as potential good leaders, good teachers.  It’s why my father was a natural teacher—he modeled good, and he showed integrity and dignity, even to his last breath.
The final days of my dad’s life was spent at home, in hospice.  The family sat with him around the clock and took care of him, as if he were a fragile newborn.  More than once while I sat with him, he spoke out, “Jesus, forgive me.  I know I have offended you.”  I first thought, If this man has offended Jesus, then I’m in real trouble.  Moreover, to me, this seemed like maybe it was a private thought, something between him and God.  A confession.  
Until his final breaths, my father kept his awareness.  He knew who was sitting with him.  He knew when I was there.  He would open his eyes, look around, and then drift back into a light sleep.  He spoke little, but what he spoke was very specific.  He said he’d miss me.  He whispered once that he thought I was a good son and a good father.  And without hesitation I assured him that if any of that were true, it was only because of the examples he set before me. 
And so as I sat there with him in those hours, it occurred to me that he was doing more than just bringing closure, saying goodbye, confessing even.  He was still teaching.  As he showed me how to live, he was showing me, in his final lesson, how to die.  How to face the end.  Setting one final example.  Still, even then, he couldn’t not teach, he couldn’t not model, showing dignity, showing faith.

In writing about his own father, American writer Clarence B. Kelland remembers, “My father didn't tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.”  It is in that watching that we actually learn.  Seeing the consistent example, the life-long model, that Paul is describing.  The model that shows the way, whether it’s in the classroom, in the work place, or in the final hours.  Showing, not telling. 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Giving to the Need

Walking up the sidewalk behind the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., I spied the man ambling toward my wife and me, and I braced myself for the oncoming story of his broken down car and how he would only need a few bucks to help him get back home.  I had heard it over and over, again and again.  If every one were true, I would start to think that I was some kind of fated angel sent to meet distressed travelers whose cars, only moments before, had just sputtered their last gulps of carbon monoxide.  So instead, I would much rather he say, Buddy, can you spare…  The man was in his thirties, shorter than I, black, and wearing a sweat-stained T-shirt that was hanging out of his pants.  He locked eyes with me and caught me a little off guard with a new approach—the plain truth.
“Hey, man,” he began, smiling a genuine smile.  “I could use an ice-cold beer right now.  Could you help me out?”
My wife and I stopped right there on the pavement.  Now perhaps it was because we were in a particularly good mood, as we were about to see Paul McCartney, the cute, albeit graying, ex-Beatle, the composer of Yesterday and Hey Jude, in concert again, plowing through three dozen of his greatest hits, that, returning the man’s smile, I gladly reached in my pocket and pulled out four ones.  “Honesty,” I belted.  “I can appreciate that!” I continued and jammed the bills in his outstretched palm.  “Here you go, my man.  I hope it’s one of the best beers you ever had!” 
He pocketed the money and told us to enjoy the show, and as he started off he said, “I’m gonna drink to you.” 
“Then I have everything,” I answered, ending the kibitzing, and then we continued our trek up the sidewalk to take our place in line.
Now, I know that there are those who will be quick to respond, You’re just making the problem worse, feeding an addiction, etc.  Maybe.  Or if he had given me some sad story, I could still give him the money and I could sleep better, having chosen to believe that I had provided some wayward soul with adequate  bus fare; and right now he’s tucked away safely, full-bellied, in bed, thinking Thank you, citizen as he drifts off.  I could.  Or better yet, I could have muttered Sorry as my wife and I rushed passed him, staring down at the sidewalk just beyond our feet.  And by the time Macca was filling the arena with Hello Goodbye, we all would have forgotten about each other.  That’s one way. 
But that wasn’t my father’s way.
I used to have the same reservations about whom to give to, how to give, or at least how to assess someone’s need.  Once my father and I were out on one of our aimless adventures, walking up a city street to see where it led.  Often we let our ’73 Impala decide where we’d go.  That day, we drifted into Canton, an old neighborhood pocket a few blocks off the water.  As we ambled away from the harbor, looking in storefronts, peering down alleys, watching people, and adjusting to the crisp morning air, a block ahead of us a disheveled man was shuffling toward us.  He was unwashed, dressed in a stained, blue down coat, loose fitting jeans, and sneakers that were almost impossible to see that they were once white.  His salt and pepper hair was thick and matted and spread straight down his sunken cheeks and around his chin.  His skin was darkened and leathered from too much exposure to the sun.  
Out of instinct, my father and I tacitly veered toward the curb to give the man a wide birth.  But as we veered, so did he.  I thought, I know what this bum wants.  And I just wanted to get past.  I thought, As soon as Dad refuses him we’ll speed ahead to put distance between us.  At last his eyes met my father’s and he asked us in a scruffy voice, “Hey, could you spare some change?  I really need a drink,” his hand turned upward and out, but to no one in particular.  He probably expected to hear his no and to continue walking.  My dad stopped and said, “Lemme see,” as he reached under his coat and into his pocket.  He pulled out some crumpled ones and placed them into the man’s palm.  “Good luck, buddy,” my dad said as we started off.  The man said nothing in return and shuffled on. 
Once we were out of hearing range of the man, I asked, “Why did you give him money?  He actually told you he was going to buy more alcohol with it.  Isn’t that just what he doesn’t need?  Isn’t that why he’s out here?” 
My dad stopped and said, “You missed the point.  I don’t want him to drink.  And I don’t want to support his drinking.  Even though it’s legal.  But he seemed like he really needs a drink.  I can’t judge that.  It’s not my place to judge his need.  All I know is that he does need something, and he asked me for help.  I didn’t give him a couple of bucks for his drinking…I gave for his need.”  And on we walked.  It was a lot for my fecund mind to wrestle with.  It still is.  My instinct is to judge and act accordingly.  But my father was able to wrestle through that. 
Give to the need.
That sentiment is echoed in Paul’s second letters to the Corinthians 9:7.  Paul writes, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”  Although it is the ending prepositional phrase, “for God loves a cheerful giver,” that too often is thrown out as a verbal balm to those who are coaxed to give and who feel they have given more than they wanted.  But it is the beginning of that line that carries the secret of giving, even cheerfully, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart.”  Paul is clarifying that giving must be personal, thoughtful, and perhaps not entered into lightly.  So perhaps giving will mean more for the givers, as well as the receivers.  And maybe, giving can’t be turned on and off so easily, or with a snap judgment.
When my father gave, he gave in the name of Jesus.  He gave from his heart.  He gave to the need, which, hopefully, helped the man.  When that man approached me my father and me on the streets, it would have been quick and easy to dismiss him and continue with our day.  And we would have forgotten him by the end of the next block.  But what my father recognized in that man was that it could have been any of us, himself even, down on our luck, shuffling along. 
When my father and I would set out on an aimless adventure, at an impromptu point A, something always happened that was memorable—a picnic, a street juggler, a fender bender, who knows.  And sometimes, we even found hidden treasure.  Like a gift.  Like a guy asking for some spare change, triggering me to better understand need and my father and God and maybe even myself.